Why Plex makes me finally use a media center, and how to watch overseas television without limitations using VPN

As I explained in an earlier post, I have set up a Mac mini in my living room that primarily acts as a server, but it is also connected to my home entertainment system to function as a media player. I confess that I did this merely because I could. Like I said back then, I am not a heavy user of media playback software. I have no movie files stored on my harddisk (as downloading movies is too much of a hassle in countries that do not have movies available in the iTunes Store, like The Netherlands), and I never rip DVD content to disk. I don’t use the Mac to play DVDs, as I think that my Blu-ray player does a far better job on this, and is easier to operate. And I also don’t watch or record television on the Mac, as this job is perfectly taken care of by my cable company’s HD settop box with PVR. The only media related activities that I used the living room Mac mini for were playing music, and occasionally watching photos.

Plex and its alternatives

However, due to a number of reasons, as of lately I am hooked to a brilliant open source Media Center initiative that is unique to Mac OS X called Plex. Triggered by my new Harmony One remote, of which I wrote in great detail in my former post, I had a closer look at the Plex software because of its unique capability to work brilliantly with the Harmony, bypassing many of the limitations of the 6-button Apple Remote. And what I found was that this software greatly enhances my TV watching choices, and on top doing so in a slick and very well designed manner. The reason for my shift? Online content.

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Why the perfect universal remote will never exist (but how the Harmony One comes close)

My history of researching, buying, using and discarding universal remotes to operate my home entertainment equipment might be comparable to my search for the perfect computer mouse: neither quest has thus far resulted in finding a product that seems to fit my wishes perfectly.

In these days, with an ever growing pile of eletronics devices that can be remote controlled, it is not hard to imagine that many people are looking for a single universal remote that can replace them all. The idea seems easy: just put all functionality of the seperate remotes into one new device. However, in practice, it seems to be very hard to turn this idea into a well executed product. This is due to a number of reasons that I try to explain in this article.

Although early remote controls in the 1950s used ultrasonic sound to communicate, the consumer electronics industry moved almost entirely towards infrared by the late 70s, early 80s. Using infrared has a number of huge disadvantages, the most prominent of them of course being the fact that you have to have  a clear line-of-sight between the remote and the device. If the signal gets blocked, the command will not arrive. (Imagine how things would have looked today if instead of light, the remote used a radio signal. There would be no loss of signal, and a device could be operated even if it was locked up in a closet.)

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The wide screen saga

Wide screen television sets were introduced in Europe around 1992. At that time, there were hardly any wide screen broadcasts, so in order to move these new wide TV sets, manufacturers included all kinds of artificial picture scaling technologies into their products, stretching out the image just so that the screen is “filled”, and no black bars are visible at the sides of the screen. Of course, even though anyone serious about viewing moving images “the way they are intended” shudders from the idea of sacrifising picture aspect ratio, I can understand that in those early days without any wide screen content available, such technologies were needed just to get the wide screen TV ball rolling.

Then came DVD in early 1997. The first mainstream video format to offer real, anamorphic, wide screen video. The DVD specification cleverly defines that a player must be capable of compressing and letterboxing a wide screen DVD when a traditional 4:3 is connected, while outputting the uncompressed, full frame wide screen image to a wide screen TV. Unfortunately, the type of TV set that is connected to the player needs to be manually selected by the user. Ususally, this setting is burried deep down into the player’s setup menu. And since outputting an uncompressed anamorphic image to a traditional TV would result in deeply distorted pictures, but outputting a compressed letterboxed image to a widescreen TV does no harm to the aspect ratio, all manufacturer’s decided to set the player to “4:3 TV” by default.

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A degree in picture management

Only recently, I took the plunge and bought myself my first Blu-ray Disc player, a Sony BDP-S350. I waited specifically for this model, for two reasons. One, I wanted the player to be BD-Live (or Profile 2.0) compliant, meaning that it is equiped with a network-connector allowing certain BD titles to access the Internet and enhance the movie playback with online content. And second, I wanted my Blu-ray player to be a Sony, because as the main supporter of the Blu-ray Disc format, I expect Sony to provide the best support in terms of firmware updates, making my investment as future proof as possible.

I hooked up the player to my Philips Full HD LCD television, which is about one year old. Much to my surprise, the picture quality of a Blu-ray title (in this case the magnificant documentary “Earth”) did not overwelm me in the way I expected. Specifically, the picture contained, in my opinion, a lot of musquito noise in darker areas, and also the movement was a little jittery. When trying a DVD, I noticed some of the same effects: noise and lack of sharpness, and not perfect motion. Of course this qualification might be due to me being over sensitive to video quality, however I was pretty sure that both the TV and this generally well reviewed player should be capable of delivering more. Especially since the picture quality of my relatively cheap 1080p upscaling DVD player was free from these effects when used with my TV. So I was determined to finetune the new player and the TV to get the results I expected.

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