Wednesday, June 11, 2008

My Review of the SageTV STX-HD100 Media Extender and SageTV

Those of you who know me in Real Life(tm), know that I'm not one of those folks that pretends they don't own a television. I enjoy it, and I believe it can surpass movies in its ability to tell a detailed story.

Television dramas can be broken up into segments that span a long period of time. That's not to say that a lot of it is trash. That's also not to say that I'm above watching trash. But there are gems: Lost, Jericho, (beats, bears and) Battlestar Galactica, The Office (US and UK). These shows define why television is more than a boob tube, even though ... often ... it's a boob tube.

For a bit of background, I'm a US satellite subscriber and former Cable TV customer. I started using DVRs the day after the Tivo Series 2 became available. I purchased one because it was available at a steep discount as a refurb. Now I wouldn't watch television without a DVR. Owning a DVR means you get to watch precisely what you want to watch when you want to watch it. It's a time saver, or at least a way to waste less time watching bad television because that's all that happens to be on when you wish to watch television.
The Tivo was short lived. I didn't like paying a monthly service charge and I really didn't like the fact that I couldn't hack-upgrade my Series 2 easily.
Previous posts will indicate that SageTV isn't my first experience with DVR software.


SageTV


SageTV is a spectacular piece of software. But making it work spectacularly requires a bit of ... work. I wouldn't hand this over to my mother to get up and running. While it's not nearly as complicated to get working as MythTV (in its current state), it's a daunting task to get it to do "everything".


The Good Parts


SageTV will play back ... well ... whatever your processor is able to handle. This includes the obvious container formats like avi, and mpeg. But also some of the more obscure like mp4, avchd, Matroska (mkv), mpeg TS. You may have to install the appropriate codec or splitter in Windows, but provided you've done so, the files play back flawlessly.
SageTV can be controlled -- entirely -- by remote control. It works well on a range of televisions, from my very old 23" analog set, to my rather new 50" Full HD set. The interface is incredibly flexible, regardless of how inflexible your particular display technology happens to be.
SageTV includes Place Shifting capability (think Sling Box). And for a very small fee, you can purchase a placeshifter license. The SageTV PlaceShifter works beautifully.
It has the only High Definition Media Extender I've ever seen, and it's got the only Media Extender I've ever used that didn't come with a bunch of "It will work, as long as your media is encoded in precisely <insert format that your media is *not* encoded in> this format".
Though not Open Source or Free, there is no recurring cost other than major version software upgrades. The guide data subscription is included in the price of the application.


The Other Good Things (Provided you have customized SageTV)


I mentioned earlier that it's not easy to setup. This isn't entirely true. It is actually very easy to setup, provided you are happy with the default SageTV Interface. You won't be. The default SageTV interface is among the worst Media PC interfaces I've ever worked with.
All is not lost, however, as there is an add-on called Sage TV Media Center that fills in almost all of the gaps you can imagine. The interface is clean and refined. Screen real-estate is efficiently used and the ability to customize it is incredible.
Put bluntly, I wouldn't run SageTV were it not for SageMC.


The Not-so-good Things


With any system that is this customizable, you run into usability problems. Any system that is this customizable is always going to be geared toward the geekier amongst us. I had previously used, and enjoyed using, BeyondTV. It was a great system but lacked the ability to play many file formats, and as of writing does not support recording from the HD-PVR, which in my circumstances is a must.
Getting the device to work with one of the best remotes ever made, the Snapstream Firefly isn't trivial unless you have a license for Girder or have donated to and installed LM Remote Keymap (the latter being the most inexpensive choice).
Similarly, getting SageTV to work properly with the USB-UIRT, also requires LM Remote Keymap.


The downright bad


Television shows that are recorded are stored in "Recordings" and include all of the metadata that you'd expect from a Tivo, or other standalone DVR. All of the rest of your videos live in this black hole called Imported Videos. Assuming you have a large library of videos that were recorded with other software (BeyondTV), or downloaded (legally, of course), the Imported Videos might as well include a card catalog organized using the Dewey Decimal system.
The best analogy I can find is that it's basically Windows Explorer in a 10-foot interface.
As bad as this is, there are ways around it. The current best way is to use the SageTV Web Interface plug-in and provide the metadata yourself. Obviously, if you have several hundred videos from a different source (BeyondTV, or otherwise downloaded), you're going to be spending a lot of time manually typing metadata.
I whipped up a quick application (soon to be released here), that scours the web for the metadata and turns the "imported videos" into actual Recordings.
All of that said, based on how I have SageTV configured, including add-ons and my custom software, I give it an 8 out of 10.


The SageTV Media Extender


I was very skeptical the day that the SageTV STX-HD100 was released. I've worked with various media extenders and streamers (in fact, I own an Xbox 360, so I technically have another brand of Media Extender in my house). They're all lousy. Often they require you to run a client on a PC that re-encodes video (poorly) for playback on the streamer. Sometimes they have little to no user interface. And they almost always come with serious restrictions on what they will and will not play back.
Even the Xbox 360 -- with all of its processing power -- will refuse to decode and playback various file formats. Get into the obscure like Matroska (MKV) and you can simply forget it. It won't work.
I was intrigued when I discovered the list of formats that SageTV committed to supporting.
As of the latest beta firmware, you can play back video/audio files in these container formats:
Matroxka (MKV), AVI, ASF, MPEG1/2 (MPG), QuickTime (MOV, MP4), OGG, Windows Media Video (WMV), Good old DVD (VOB), and AVCHD.
You can play back audio files encoded in:
AAC, MPEG Audio, Vorbis (it appears only in the ogg container, which would be normal and it supports stereo only), AC3 (Dolby Digital is decoded if you're plugged in via the Stereo outputs, otherwise it does a pass-thru via the optical output), Windows Media Audio (WMA), Free Lossless Audio Codec (FLAC), DTS (It does not decode DTS but it will pass-through to optical).
You can play back video files encoded in:
MPEG-1 and 2 (at all DVD supported bitrates and several well above DVD), MPEG-4.2 ASP@L5, H.264 (AVC) up to 1080p, WMV9/VC-1 up to 1080p.
Video/Audio Output:
It's important to note that though this device is a High Definition media extender, it doesn't necessarily have to be. Despite the fact that the majority of my library is High Definition, I have one of my HD Extenders plugged into an analog television via the S-Video port. It does a brilliant job of displaying HD content on SD displays.
In fact, on the back of the HD Extender you'll find an optical port, two RCA stereo ports, an S-Video port, a composite video port, the typical "HD" component video ports, and an HDMI port, which means it'll plug in to just about any television made after 1990.
The versatility of this device is it's biggest feature. It'll play back almost everything, and it'll play it back to almost any kind of television.
The second biggest feature is one that you won't notice -- it's silent. Despite its ability to crunch through some of the more processor intensive video codecs, it's a small, silent and nice looking device.


The Two Drawbacks


It's somewhat expensive at $200 (more if you don't already own a SageTV license). Considering all of its capabilities, I'm happy to pay $200, rather than $100 or $150 for a device that has a slew of limitations.
No WiFi. Likely this is to prevent play-back limitations. 802.11G may not be able to handle the larger HD videos and "N" (in it's never-going-to-be-released state) is still "Draft".
You can always bridge if you need wireless. Though I'd hazard a guess that if you're really working with SageTV, you probably aren't uncomfortable with running Cat-5e cable into yet another room in your house.



The Verdict


SageTV is great, but tricky to get working "just right".
The SageTV STX-HD100 Extender is the gold standard. There is nothing on the market today that works this well and if you're serious about your home theater rig, you'll be happy to have a wallet that's $200 lighter.

Much thanks to Brent Evans of Geek Tonic fame for convincing me to buy one of these. He's got his own review of the STX-HD100 that puts mine to shame.

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