Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Convoluted technical hoo-ha

Here is a post about a big waste of time.

We have two nifty devices for managing our TV viewing habits. My first purchase was a Topfield PVR some years ago - it was so long ago, it only has an 80GB drive. I am sure there are people out there with wristwatches that have more storage than that.

To begin with, that was more than sufficient for our needs. It records at about 2GB per hour, and 40 hours of saved TV is more than enough viewing for us. We record a show, generally watch it within 2-3 weeks, then delete it. However, Monkey has different viewing habits to us. If he likes something, like Bing and Bong's Tiny Planets, he wants to watch it several hundred times. There went the idea of using the "delete" button, and slowly but surely, all the room on the hard drive has been colonised by Monkey shows. We do a spring clean every now and then as he gets older and becomes sick of certain shows, but it's funny how 80GB just ain't enough for a 3 year old.

The other device we have is a Mediagate media player. It can't record anything, but it is good for playing back stuff from its hard drive. I spent a few weeks ripping most of our DVD collection to .avi format and uploading them to the Mediagate, so we now have a library of dozens of movies and kids shows at hand.

I bought a bit of software called isofter to do the ripping - it does a pretty good job, although it bombs out if any other processes are running. Everything else has to be shutdown in order for it to work properly, including screen savers. What I like about it is that it has allowed me to eliminate all the useless puke at the start of each DVD - the crap that various marketing and legal branches of each media conglomerate force you to sit through.

I thought everyone these days was supposed to be time poor, which is why people are predicting the death of DVD rental and a move to movies on demand - impatient slobs just won't sit around and wait for anything anymore, and a 10 minute walk to and from the video rental shop is just too much to bear.

If that's the case, why does every DVD have 5 minutes of useless, time wasting crap at the start of it? How can the time poor afford to waste time sitting through that garbage?

Yesterday, I decided to experiment with moving recorded stuff from the Topfield to the Mediagate. They can't be linked directly, so I have to download to a laptop from the Topfield using a bit of software called Altair - it's slow as a wet week, since the Topfield only runs USB 1. A 2 hour recording of a movie can take most of the night to transfer to the laptop.

Once on the laptop, I run another bit of software to convert the .rec formatted recording into a .mp4 file. The laptop is not the fastest beast on the planet - converting 2 hours of stuff takes about 5 hours, or so it seems (I have not sat around to time it exactly). It would be faster to use a steam powered overhead projector to do the job than our old laptop - assuming it doesn't bomb out partway through.

That doesn't bother me in the slightest, since the laptop is not being used for anything else. If I needed it to read email or surf the intranets, I'd be annoyed, but I just sit the old thing in the corner and let it do its stuff.

It took me half a dozen attempts before I finally found a set of conversion options that would work with the Mediagate. It claims to play lots of formats, but when I first opened my conversion software, I found that it provided a list of conversion options that scrolled off the bottom of the screen. It took quite a bit of trial and error before I found a set of options that the Mediagate will live with.

Once the conversion is complete, I then have to run a different USB cable to the Mediagate (they have different connections, believe it or not) and upload the file using a bit of software called NDAS. Half the time, the software fails to work, and the laptop doesn't recognise the Mediagate, so I have to reboot both and then start playing a movie on the Mediagate. For some odd reason, if you just power it up, the NDAS software won't see it. If you actually get the Mediagate to do something, like play a movie, it suddenly sparks up and sees it. However, you have to start the movie playing before you plug the USB cable in.

All these things have to be done in the right order, and as you'd expect, none of this is mentioned in the user manual.

I thought technology was supposed to make our lives easier.

At least the Mediagate has USB2, so I can get a file onto it in a minute or two, rather than an hour or two like the Topfield.

You might think that the simple answer would be to buy a 500GB drive for the Topfield, which is an option. Yes, I could, but I won't. I don't need that change. I prefer to think of the devices as performing separate functions - one provides short term storage for "watch once" entertainment, and the other provides long term storage for "watch many" entertainment. For short term storage, we don't need acres of storage, so long as we manage it properly. The longer term storage will eventually fill up - the Mediagate has a 350GB drive in it, which is a bit over half full, but it will eventually fill up.

Some housecleaning is already required, but wouldn't you know it, you can't delete files from it using the remote control. You have to connect a PC or laptop to it via this stupid flaky NDAS software, go into Windows Explorer and delete them that way.

When I think about this kerfuffle, walking down to the video rental shop starts to sound like an attractive option.


Anonymous said...

Just a note to suggest that you try the Tivo PVR, you can demo it at Harvey's, JB Hifi and others. And you will see that it has the best, ease of use and fastest software set up bar none! I have had the new HD model almost a year now and the OzTivo homebrew model for about four years and it the best on the market!

Boy on a bike said...

I seriously looked at building a homebrew OzTivo before I bought the TopField. If a Tivo had been on the market back then, I probably would have bought one.

I suspect the Topfield probably has 2-4 years of service life left in it, and I am in hurry to dump it and buy a replacement - it works! Certainly, the Tivo is better when it comes to a proper electronic program guide, but we have learned to live with a less than perfect alternative.

Shane Kerr said...

Mad props on being a Toppy owner. They are awesome. We have 2. The only thing I would replace our Toppy with is another toppy.

Looking at a HD one someday soon.