Friday, March 09, 2007

MediaPortal Review

I've decided to get into a little more detail for this particular post. I have been running MediaPortal in Windows XP for nearly a month now and I'm ready to give you the low-down.

First, the hardware...

Computer Name: AVServer
Intel Pentium 4 3.0GHz Socket 775
ASUS Motherboard (I'll update the speck in a little bit...)
On-board 7.1 Sound
On-board GB Ethernet
1GB Corsair PC3200 DDR RAM (2x 512)
1x 400GB Seagate 7200.10 SATA II (3.0GB/SEC) HDD
1x 320GB Seagate 7200 UATA-100 HDD
Chaintech PCI-X16 Nvidia 7600GS 512MB Video Card
Hauppage Win-TV PVR-500 MCE Dual Tuner TV Card
Lite-On 16x DVD ROM Drive
Lite-On 20x DVD Burner (Dual Layer) w/ Lightscribe
Microsoft IR Media Center Remote

Let's not forget the software...

Microsoft Windows XP Pro
Microsoft Live OneCare (manages patches, virus, spy and admin tasks)
MediaPortal (The Open Source Media Center)
RipIt4Me (Manages DVD Decrypter and DVD Shrink to back up DVD's)
Nero Burning ROM (v7 Premium)
RealVNC Enterprise Remote
DaemonTools (ISO image mounter)

What's Missing...

SoundBlaster X-Fi Elite Pro Sound Card
4x Seagate 7200.10 750GB SATA 3.0Gb/sec
Logitech Harmony 880 IR Remote
Good MP3/DVD info/playlist manager (More about this further down...)

I would like to discuss DVD Archiving. I've never had a lot of luck ripping DVD's, much less burning them. It's really always been a question of storage space and quality. I've never had enough storage space to store everything at the quality levels I wanted so I never really sorted it all out. There are plenty of guides out there and I've followed quite a few.

I've found the best way to archive my DVD's and make backup copies has been to use the RipIt4Me application listed above. Once configured I'm able to crank out DVD backups with standard configurations and settings.

I don't have to jump between multiple apps to get around decryption and it allows me to strip unwanted languages, captions and "coming soon" clips at my discretion, saving quite a bit of space. Will I ever be watching the Matrix in French? Do I need .5GB of audio for it? Once I have my one-click settings to my liking I only need about 40 minutes to rip, resize and burn to ISO.

I've already made quite a dent in my DVD collection getting them all ripped onto local drives but I'll have to wait until the hard drive fairy leaves a couple more terrabytes in my mass storage garden to complete the process.

I really like how RipIt4Me uses some other utilities to eliminate "pre-menu" junk like FBI warnings, previews and commercials. I load the disk and it goes directly to the main DVD menu and I can start the show without wading through the other junk.

With DVD Shrink in the mix with RipIt4Me I'm able to simmer down most dual-layer DVD's that rip to a native ~8GB down to right around 4GB without any noticeable impact on quality. I've run a couple of tests and I think with this space savings and the stripping of unnecessary content I've reached a happy medium between space and quality.

Being the deaf old techosaur that I am I've always been a little hesitant to spend too much money or space on high-fidelity audio. I still rip all my MP3's to 192KHz CD Quality and am quite happy. The extra space and overhead associated with FLAC and other high-fi formats just doesn't seem worth it to me.

The same goes for expensive surround sound solutions. I enjoy a good DTS or THX movie with loud booming and crystal clear detail, but not to the point of stepping into the audiophile realm. I think the Creative X-Fi is a good middle of the road solution at the higher end of the mid-range sound solutions available.

In the mean time I'm just running the 7.1 Surround built into the motherboard and I'm fairly happy with it, however it does lack the array of inputs and outputs I would like to have available.

MediaPortal itself is proving to be an EXCELLENT solution for the Home Theater Media PC. The user interface is simple and straight forward enough for the novice while being flexible and configurable with a number of community created and supported plug-ins for the geeks.

The MediaPortal interface is lush with features including live local weather, various skins and simple to use and read menus. I'm still using my Dish PVR 500 to record TV but MP does have the ability to run an IR Blaster and start handling those duties. Again, this is something I'm waiting for more storage to dig into. In the mean time I just set Tuner 1 to channel 3 and set it to the default channel.

Daemon Tools controls are built into MP so it will automount the image file as a virtual drive and fire it right up. Very convenient.

A punch of the Green Button on the MS remote gives me access to my movie archive, MP3 archive and a whole host of other avi and mpeg videos. It has a nice photo viewer and runs really smoothly in general. It has Radio functionality and the interface for that is very nice and works well with the FM Tuner built into the TV Tuner card.

While this is all going on at the big TV in the living room my MediaGate MG-35 is running off the lan in the bedroom. From there I can access the drives on the MediaPortal machine and watch all my shows, movies clips or photos from either location smoothly and at good quality simultaneously.

I have been very happy with the setup. As I said, I need more storage and a better sound solution. I'd like to get one of those swanky Logitech Harmony remotes to control external devices as well as the PC, but don't really need to do that until I get the break-out box for audio connections.

What's really lacking in my setup right now is a media manager application. I'm still looking for a good solution that will help me sort, genre, update tags and find cover art for my MP3 collection as well as manage my DVD collection (cover art and production information).

MediaPortal actually does a pretty good job looking up information on the internet to fill in movie and song info - but it's a bit slow and the drive scan utility doesn't pick up the .iso image files even though it handles them in the player once you configure DaemonTools so you have to go through one at a time and update the .iso file's information in MediaPortal. I have a fairly massive collection of music and even though it's about 90% sorted (and leveled) I'm still looking for a utility to manage it all. I've tried quite a few and haven't really found the silver bullet.

If you have any suggestions let me know. MediaPortal is pretty good about going out and getting cover art and such for MP3's that I do have accurate tag information for but really isn't designed to manage the content so much as present it to me very efficiently.

I would really like to find an app that I can let loose on my hard drive to seek out songs, album and artist info from existing tags or file names, verify and complete any missing information, update and standardize tags, file names and folder locations while finding and associating album/cover art with the file.

Basically, I want it all, and I want it to work perfectly. Gosh, I sound like on of my users...must be time for lunch.

All in all, I have to say that I STRONGLY recommend MediaPortal, I'm very happy with its DRM-Free Attitude, operation and general glossy sheen. It's very professional looking unlike a lot of open source software I've used while maintaining flexibility and community driven growth and support. Give it a whirl before you drop any $$$ on BeyondTV or MS-MCE.

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