Saturday, July 27, 2013

Google Chromecast


So after reviewing the very high end MED600X3D media streamer that specializes in local media lets take a look at the opposite end of the spectrum.  The google chromecast is dirt cheap at $35 (amazon).  I ordered it pretty early so I was able to get in on the free 3 months of netflix (which works with existing subscribers too) before that offer ran out.  Since I already pay $8/month for netflix this represents a $24 value which brings down the actual price of the chromecast to just $11.  That's cheaper than a lunch so I decided to give it a try and found some surprising uses for this little device.

I could not get the device to power off of hdmi even on my new vizio m801d (in hdmi port 4).  It works fine using the usb cable and plugging that into one of the TV usb ports.  It's tiny but it does get pretty hot to the touch after a bit of use.  It does come with an 850mA usb power adapter.  It does support 802.11n but only on the 2.4ghz band.  It doesn't see my 5ghz ssid.  Start up time is less than 5 sec.

Setup has a few interesting requirements.  You see, the chromecast doesn't have any sort of remote or even a UI for changing settings.  Everything has to be setup from some other controlling device.  Right now that means a pc or mac with wifi (so most likely a laptop of some sort) or an android device.  You cannot do initial setup with an ios device.  You must have a laptop or an android device.  The reason is you have to either install a windows/mac application or an android application by visiting:
If you go there on an android device it takes you to the google play store to install the chromecast app which basically does the same thing as the windows/mac app.

Hitting the setup url on my iPhone 5 will show the above.  It seems like a chromecast iOS app for setup is coming soon.  The reason you need a compatible wifi device for setup is it creates a little temporary ad hoc wifi network to the chromecast.  Then, you can pick your router ssid and enter the wpa2 password.  Once the chromecast is on your wireless lan then any device on your lan can cast to it including wired desktops running the chrome browser and the google cast plugin.  

Given the size and portability of the device I figure it might be a nice thing for travel.  Once you move it to a new location you will have to go through the entire setup process again so you can get it on another router ssid and password (I need to test once I get home to see if it remembers multiple wireless configurations.  UPDATE: It only stores ONE set of wifi information.  This means every time you change wireless networks you must go through the setup process again.  That's a bit inconvenient.).  So again make sure you have a laptop or an android device with you until they release the iOS app.  It's working fine right now at my parents house after setting it up again. 

While on this screen the background image changes over time, the ready to cast text will disappear, and the arogan chromecast text status and time block will move a little.  This is probably to prevent image retention on plasma displays.

Native apps (Google Cast API/HTML5) vs Mirroring (WebRTC):
Chromecast seems to work in two different modes.  It has a few native apps like netflix, youtube, google music, and movies (running on a slimed down version of chromeos).  The only way these apps get started is by using some compatible app on a mobile device or compatible website (like youtube or netflix)  that is going to be controlling the chromecast.  In this mode your mobile device (or website) acts only as a remote control.  Once you start playing some media you can turn off your phone and it will continue to play on the TV.  This is great since you use very little battery life except when you want to control the video in some way.  To get native app casting working from desktop chrome browser on the youtube or netflix site look at the bottom right corner of the video window for the usual casting icon (vs the extension icon in the upper right of the browser which is for mirroring).  If you don't see it check and see if you are running a script blocking extension like NotScript and make sure you allow the google cast extension.  Netflix quality and youtube quality is excellent.  Pictured above is an episode of Heroes (it's a good test b/c I know it is in 5.1) running at full 1080p and dolby digital+ 5.1.  I moved the chromecast and hooked it directly to the receiver for this test.  I had issues though when I hooked it through a monoprice 2X4 hdmi matrix switch.  It's a little older switch but fully supports 3D so I'm not sure what the issue was.  Just be warned that there might be some compatibility problems with certain hdmi switches.  Either way it worked fine once I hooked it up directly to the receiver.  The little hdmi dongle extension they include is really short and only a couple of inches long.  I might have to pick up a few hdmi extension cables from monoprice.  Youtube also looks great but is only 2 channel pcm audio.  Both worked fine from my iPhone using the native netflix and youtube apps.  I briefly tried out my hp touchpad running cyanogenmod 9 (android 4.0.4).  I had problems using it to do setup and couldn't connect to the chromecast to get it setup on the local wifi.  But once it was on the local wifi (using my macbook pro) the app seemed to work fine.  This might just be a quirk with the wifi in cyanogenmod on the hp touchpad.  Netflix and youtube worked fine.  When I tried the music app it gave me an error about not allowing side loaded content to be casted.  WTF????  So yeah those 20,000 songs they give you to upload to google music won't stream at all to the chromecast.  That's pretty lame.  UPDATE: My bad.  Apparently the song I was trying to play was local only to the tablet and not uploaded into the google music cloud (which wasn't readily apparent).  Once I picked a song that was actually in the cloud it played back just fine.  It even displays the cover art which moves around over time to prevent burn in.  Overall, a nice music experience if you use google music (though I still prefer subsonic).  They really need to improve that error message though.  This space can get very interesting as more native apps get added.  Performance is great and basically has no impact on your mobile device's battery life.

Now this is what I was more interested in.  In the full regular desktop chrome web browser (pc or mac) with the google cast extension installed you can mirror any tab (apparently the chromebook pixel is supported too).  It's a true mirror and works with all websites including flash based ones like hulu and gametrailers.  As you scroll around and navigate on that tab your TV mirrors those actions.  The cool part is you can work on a different tab at the same time as another tab is mirrored.  If you sleep your laptop then of course casting stops.  Full screen hulu looks pretty good and fills the TV nicely.  Amazon prime instant video works well too.  Quality isn't bad once you set the extension to extreme bitrate.  Framerate never seems completely smooth to me though with some micro hitching going on.  You don't see any of these issues with the native apps.  At least it works and is probably good enough for most people.  Another neat thing you can do is cast your entire desktop.  It works ok but the quality seems a bit worse and there is no audio.  That's one of the neat things how casting a tab works.  It automatically mutes your audio on your pc while it is casting and restores it once you stop.  I could NOT find a way to do any kind of mirroring with the  mobile chrome web browser on ios or android.  I hope this feature gets added soon.  Text is quite legible.

Local media isn't directly supported but there are a few work arounds.  First you can just drag and drop media directly into a chrome tab and start playing it.  I tried mp4 and mp3 files which worked pretty well.  MKV would play but without audio.  Once it's starts playing you can just cast that tab and voila you are now casting local media.  Quality is average and even worse it doesn't full screen properly.  It looks full screen on my laptop but adds black bars all around the screen on the TV (maybe it's due to a difference in aspect ratio and/or resolution between my macbook and the TV.  UPDATE: It was an aspect ratio issue.  My macbook is 16:10 and my TV is 16:9.  I tried casting local media from my desktop which is set to 1920X1080 and full screen filled up the TV nicely).  You can also use full desktop mirror mode and fire up VLC but then you have no audio.  In general desktop mirroring is worse quality than tab mirroring.  It's still experimental so hopefully it gets improved over time.

Input latency is pretty high all around.  Even for native apps there is lag between the time you hit a player control and the app responds (like pause, play, scrubbing, etc).  It's even worse while mirroring. Scrolling text in a web browser feels like it lags at around 250-500ms.  Unless input latency improves don't expect to ever game on a chromecast.

Highly recommended.  At $35 I'm very impressed at the capabilities of this little device.  At $11 it's a no brainer.  If you want an ultra portable high quality youtube and netflix device with some web browser mirroring on the side then grab it now.  I see some great potential in this dirt cheap device.  Just don't expect something on the same level as appletv, wd tv live, or roku, and you should be quite happy.

UPDATE:  Looks like rooting is already happening.  Also, apparently the OS is more similar to android/google tv than it is to chromeos.

UPDATE: Chromecast and hotel internet
So there are a few challenges getting chromecast working with hotel internet:
- Access pages.  You know it is that page where you have to agree to some terms, click a check box, and put in your room number and last name every 24hrs to get your free internet access.  Yeah, the chromecast has no idea of how to get around that.
- Wireless isolation.  This is a security thing that they sometimes do where one wireless device can't talk directly to another wireless device on the hotel network.

Things you need to get it working:
- Wired ethernet internet access in the room.  If all they have is wireless you are kind of hosed unless you can get the hotel IT to whitelist the mac address of your chromecast so it bypasses the hotel access page.
- A wireless router.  I highly recommend a tiny travel one like the TPLink TL-WR702N.  It is a rather awesome little usb powered wireless router that is impressing me more the more I use it and all for less than $20.

I initially tried the router in AP mode, and that didn't work.  I could never get the chromecast on to the hotel network probably because of the hotel access page.  So I switched to full router mode.  After that I connected my laptop to my own router wirelessly, hit a web page, and went through the hotel (Hilton in this example) internet access procedure.  After that internet access worked fine.  I'm basically doing a double NAT.  This solves 2 issues:  First, I'm creating my own little local LAN on the wireless side of my own router using my own subnet.  This means all my wireless devices can talk to each other bypassing the wireless isolation issue.  Second, once I authorized internet access with my laptop while connected to my own wireless router I ended up granting access to the router (not to my specific laptop/wireless device).  Since it's the travel router device/mac address/wan ip that is getting granted access then all devices that connect to my router after that point don't need to go through that hotel access page (well at least for 24 hrs then you'll need to use your laptop and go through the hotel access page again).  After that running the chromecast setup app got me all connected and setup in no time.  I tested casting netflix, youtube, and a chrome tab.  It all worked great.  Chromecast is an awesome little travel device.  Combined with the router they don't weigh much more than a deck of cards, and they aren't that much bigger.

UPDATE: Chromecast when the hotel only has wireless:
This is at the Disney resorts (Art of Animation to be exact) where I couldn't find any sort of hard wired ethernet port.  It pops up a typical wireless authorization web page which then auto whitelists your mac and then the page auto refreshes after a few seconds telling you have internet access.  I couldn't get my travel router on their network in either bridge or client mode (tried quite a few different settings).  One post I read is using 2 routers: 1 in client mode and then daisy chain a 2nd router in router mode but I couldn't even get client mode working with my laptop.  I really should have tried cloning the mac address from my laptop after my laptop mac address was whitelisted.  I can't remember if mac address cloning was an option in bridge mode (I'm positive I saw it in router mode though).  Anyways, those were some very long, hot, and tiring days so I didn't get to spend as much time on it as I wanted to.

Mede8er MED600X3D media player


So after getting my new Vizio m801d 80" HDTV I was looking at a solution to rip 1:1 (use makemkv which is a great program.  This avsforum list of bluray disc specs is handy too.) and stream all my bluray discs that I own (about 85 right now) including 3D bluray discs.  I already have 4 of the wd tv lives in the house, and those work great including 2D bluray.  Where it fumbles is a limitation of the older sigma chip it uses is that it can't handle frame packed 3d MVC video streams (full 1:1 3d bluray, not the compressed down typical SBS mkv).  It will just choke on them with maybe 1 frame per minute.  These more recent and more expensive media streamers that have hit the market are based on the realtek 1186 chip which fully supports frame packed mvc streams.

First, a big shout out to which is where I ordered my med600x3d from.  It's $190 which is about twice the price of a wd tv live but pricing is very comparable to what is getting charged around Europe.  They shipped incredibly fast, and I got in 2 days.  They also had a nice note in there about how they tested it and even flashed the latest firmware.  All in all I was very impressed with them.

You can get the latest firmware in the forums.  The latest manual for the new firmware is found here: MED600X3D  English V2.0.0 Firmware.  It's worth looking over.  There are 2 ways to update the firmware: setup menu and  emergency method.  I tried to research to see which way was the best way.  I ended up flashing the latest with the emergency method (potentially less issues), and it worked fine.  Yes, I flashed it even though it already had the latest just to try out the process.

It pretty much does everything the wd tv live does but faster.  I tried it with samba windows shares first and things worked pretty well.  Everything streams flawlessly including 1:1 bluray mkv rips.  It pretty much supports every codec and container media type you can think of.  It handles dvd ISOs just fine with full menus.  It will also play bluray ISOs but without a menu.  There is a bd lite menu option that I never got to work.  It doesn't matter so much since you can bring up a playlist while playing a bluray ISO that lists all the titles so you can still get to all the content minus the fancy BD java menus (a feature I wish the wd tv live had).  I personally prefer it this way as you can get straight to the content quicker.  It also plays discs ripped to files instead of iso (dvd and bluray).  Subtitles are handled well too with lots of customization options like size, placement, and color.  DTS-MA and DD True HD all pass through just fine to the receiver.  I personally don't care much about a flashy jukebox UI with a lot of pretty cover art, info, or any of that other stuff (though it's supported through some free add on pc software).  All I care about is fast and densely packed information that I can quickly navigate and browse through.  In list view it does just that and works well.  I kind of miss the page up/down navigation of the wd tv live but in its place they let you jump to the first letter using the number keys and holding down a direction will quickly accelerate the scrolling speed.  During playback the navigation is even better than the wd tv.  You can use the number buttons to jump to that % in the file.  You can press right or left direction buttons to quickly scrub forward or back on the timeline, press enter and you are there.  You can go to a specific time.  You can scan at 32x.  Stability and reliability has been rock solid so far.  No odd freezes or crashes.  Works fine playing live TV (unprotected content) directly from hdhomerun prime.  It exhibits none of the odd behaviors I sometimes get with the wd tv like shares vanishing when you reboot the server requiring you to reboot the wdtv.  Everything just feels solid about this device.

Apps.  Just pretty much forget about it.  This box is really primarily designed to stream your local media.  You won't find netflix, amazon, spotify, or really anything you would recognize except youtube.  The youtube app does work very well and reminds me of the ps3 app.  It also supports pairing with your mobile device for controlling and casting media to the med600x3d.  Youtube quality looks very good.  It does support an ok web browser (no flash support).  Just plug in any usb keyboard/mouse and you are good to go (I did not buy the optional $50 tiny keyboard).  It's not something I would use much, and the ps3 and xbox 360 have better browsers anyways.  It does support RSS and podcasts which is great!  It was one of the neat features I liked about the wd tv, and I'm glad it is supported here.  Setup instructions for adding your own feeds are here.  So go add your favorite video podcasts like rev3 stuff and gametrailers, etc and it all looks and works great.

One place where using samba shares starts to struggle a bit is with 3d mvc files.  These things are big with an equally large bitrate.  It's the main reason why I decided to switch to NFS.  Instructions for setting up HaneWin are found here.  It's pretty easy to get going just remember to DISABLE JUMBO FRAMES if it is turned on for your ethernet adapter and enable flow control.  It's all covered in the latest updated manual too.  With NFS shares setup everything streams flawlessly without a hiccup including frame packed 3d mvc mkv (Avatar 3D is a good one to test with).  You have some basic file management features too like delete, copy, move and multiselect.  These worked fine on NFS shares too.  Everything is streamed through a pure gigabit network using all cat 6 cables.  I recently picked up this Rosewill RGS-1024 24 port gigabit switch.  Highly recommended if you are looking for a large cheap gigabit switch.

Drive Pooling.  When you start dealing with 30-50GB files you start running into space issues.  Right now on my main server (running windows 8 pro with classic shell) I have 6 hard drives in the main case and then 2 X 4 bay sans digital towerRaid boxes.  I'm up to 27 TB but you start getting way too many drive letters with media scattered all over the place.  I'm currently using Drive Bender which I think is rather great.  Right now I have 5 drives in a 12TB pool.  You can create samba and NFS shares on the pool just fine.  Performance is great with just a slight drop in throughput (almost unnoticeable on reads, maybe 10% on writes).  CPU utilization is less than 1% and memory is less than 30MB.  I really like how drive bender sits on top of NTFS and works at the file level instead of a block level.  It sure gives me peace of mind knowing I can pull a drive out of the pool and still be able to access the content.  Make sure you enable smooth stream for media files in drive bender.  I also have balancing turned off since I'm not doing any folder duplication/mirroring.  New files copied into the pool are still balanced anyways.

Power consumption seems to be less than 5 watts while in use and .51 watts while in standby.  It's right in line with other steamers except it's sleep mode is much deeper (the thing is completely cold in standby).  Start up times out of sleep is pretty quick too at maybe around 10 sec.

There is a universal  iOS app available for $4.  It's ok and works pretty well as a remote control.  I couldn't test out the other features since I don't have the jukebox stuff setup on the pc server side yet.  Too bad it can't also double for keyboard/mouse input for things like the web browser.

I've researched other cheaper realtek 1186 based streamers like the KDLinks HD700 ($140) and Micca EP600 ($110) which look like interesting alternatives.  But everything I read the med8er line of devices are kind of considered the flagship of realtek 1186 based streamers.

Highly recommended.  In my opinion the wd tv live is still the best value.  It plays almost everything up through 2d bluray and has a good mix of online services too at a great price (seen as low as $80 new on newegg flash deals).  But if you want the very best in local media streaming that will play the highest quality and highest bitrate files including the brutal bitrates of mvc files then this is a great device.  Granted, I'm paying double of a wd tv live to basically gain the ability of playing mvc mkv files which is why I'll probably will ever own only one of these.  When quality matters and you want perfect 1:1 bluray/3D bluray quality then this is a great solution.

UPDATE (5/31/2014):
- To play divx avi files just change FourCC tag to xvid/xvid under the hacks & tweaks tab using abcAVI Tag Editor.  It takes only a second and works great.  For a command line batch way to do it check this thread.  There is also a very simple fourcc changer you can use here.  Just manually type  xvid/xvid in the boxes.
- I dug a bit deeper into some of the unique features this device has that the wd tv lacks.  You can turn on watched flag support.  What it does if you watch a file for more than 10 min it drops a little .t file next to it and that shows up as a pair of eyes on the far right of the filename telling you you've watched it.  It's nice that the flag is stored in a file on the share so if you have more than one med600x3d the flag persists across all your streamers.
- You can also lock individual folders with a pin.  This could be a handy parental feature if you organize your media separating the kids shows from the more mature content.
- I've started messing with the jukebox features and the ios app more.  When you scan a folder from the streamer it creates a sql lite database file out on the share.  It takes a while but seemed to work ok.  The iOS app seems to only display in thumbnail view.  I wish it had a list folder style view and navigation which would make it much more useful for large music collections on the small iPhone screen.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Vizio M801D-A3 80" Razor LED Smart TV w/ Theater 3D

That is my very first hdtv.  A 720p samsung lnr-409d 40" that cost $2700.

It's been replaced by:

vizio m801d 1080p 80" passive 3D for $3700 from costco (payed another $99 for the extra 3 years squaretrade warranty giving me a total of 5 yrs.  This is my first Vizio so I figure it was worth it).

- This thing weighs a ton.  I recommend you pay the extra $35 for white glove especially if there are stairs involved (114 lbs without stand, it's a BIG sheet of glass).
- My view distance is 12 ft.
- The remote is a bit crap and found it lackluster in responsiveness.  Not a big deal because once I programmed it into my logitech harmony 550 remote it worked just fine and significantly better than the original remote.  Just use model M551d-A2R since the m801d actually isn't in the database yet.  The remotes are the same.  I love the harmony 550 which I think is a lot better and more capable than a lot of the newer harmony remotes.  Too bad they don't make them anymore.  They can still be found on ebay though for typically less than $40.
- Came with firmware  I still have not received a firmware update yet.  That's one thing that sucks about vizio.  There is no manual way to just flash to a newer firmware.  You are at the mercy of vizio whenever they decide to push a new firmware to you is when you will get it.  Doing the service check trick hasn't helped at all in getting a newer firmware earlier.
- Picture quality, lighting, and such seem fine to me.  I started with these great settings found here and tweaked it to my liking from there.  I haven't really noticed much issues with backlight uniformity, flashlighting, clouding, stuck pixels, etc.  Then again I'm not the pickiest person when it comes to these things.  Screen seems to be a semi gloss and very similar to my LG 55LW5600.  It definitely doesn't seem any worse as far as reflectivity goes.
- HDMI ARC (audio return channel) works pretty well with my Yamaha rx-473.  Just make sure you enable it in the receiver and the TV and turn CEC on the TV and use HDMI 1 on the TV.  It works better if the TV turns on before the receiver.  This way you get nice 5.1 from the built in apps like amazon instant video and netflix.  A lot of netflix content that you would expect to be in 5.1 is actually only 2.0 like Hunger Games or Avengers.  These same movies though are in 5.1 on amazon.  Use Heroes on netflix if you want to verify 5.1 is working correctly.  Youtube quality was excellent.  Not sure how much I would use any of the apps since the xbox 360, ps3, and MED600X3D covers everything already.  Here are more tips on setting up HDMI ARC.  In the end I found CEC to be rather annoying when you have a harmony remote.  In the I ended up just turning it all off and went back to using an optical cable.  It's much less hassle and just works.  HDMI ARC and CEC feel gimmicky and half baked/buggy and not quite ready for prime time.  It sits right up there with HDMI ethernet channel in terms of proper implementation and usefulness.
- 3D works nicely with content streamed from the MED600X3D.  One thing it seems to lack is the ability to convert 2D content to 3D which my LG does (and the MED600X3D has this feature too).  Not a big deal since I was never really a big fan of that feature.
- Tried call of duty black ops 2 in 3D on the xbox 360.  It worked well and the 3D looked very good but I can't play like that for more than a match or 2.  Something about panning around quickly all the time makes me sick quick!
- For additional 3D glasses you can get new RealD 3D glasses sealed for a little over $1 each at amazon or ebay.  If you saved them from the theater then those work fine too.  Any circular polarized 3D glasses will work.
- Playing games on this thing is rather awesome.  I played a it bit of cod blops 2 and geometry wars for input lag testing.  It's the one game I can tell instantly if there is input lag since the controls will feel mushy and unresponsive.  On game mode there is little to no lag and gaming is great.  In other modes lag is definitely noticeable.  I can see it getting old having to switch picture modes all the time since everything goes through the receiver and into HDMI on the vizio.  According to this CNET review it seems game mode has 38ms lag vs 130ms in the other modes.  These numbers feel about right to me.  I've finished far cry 3 on xbox 360 and about half way through Uncharted 3 on the ps3.  If you are a gamer this TV will NOT disappoint.
- Furniture wise the TV is almost as wide as our  BDI Avion 8529 (espresso) stand (72").  I ended up having to use my speaker stands for the fronts.  In the back you can see the Ikea PAX wardrobes we recently built.  It holds all the rock band, guitar hero, steering wheels, wii fit, and other gaming related peripherals.  We were going to buy new seating but ended up just keeping the couches we already had and rearranged them to the back.
- One thing I found annoying is the lack of discrete remote codes for certain functions.  Heck, even the input selection isn't discrete (though this post might help).  Not too big of a deal since I only use hdmi input 1 on the TV since all the devices are hooked up through the AV receiver.  Switching picture modes between Standard and Game depending on what I'm doing is a tad more inconvenient.  One of the nice things about the older harmony remotes like the 550 is that they support macros.  Unfortunately they only support 5 steps.  There is a work around though by using the raw learning feature and learning multiple button presses to one remote command.

Now I have 2 buttons that run sequences that lets me easily switch between Standard and Game picture modes.  It works and is very reliable.
- HD Nation also did a review on this line of TVs.
- Currently what I have hooked up to this TV:
Nintendo Wii U
Playstation 3
Xbox 360
Mede8er  MED600X3D for streaming media.
Yamah RX-V473
Def Tech ProCinema 1000

Highly recommended.  So far the family is loving the TV.  We watched some Hobbit in 3D, Wreckit Ralph in 3D, Life of Pi in 3D.  It's a great theater like experience without any of the drawbacks of projection.  If you want an 80" passive 3D this is pretty much your only choice.  I'm glad I waited for this model to be released.