Whither Next? A Media Center Journey

Four and a half years ago, I built my first HTPC for our Home Cinema setup. It was leading edge technology then, but with the rate of change being what it is, support for many of the software and hardware components very soon became either dying or dead.

The HTPC is currently running Windows 8.1 + Windows Media Center (WMC), which in turn is supplemented with MyMovies to provide the best experience with a library of films and recorded TV series. For Bluray films, I’ve been using Arcsoft’s TotalMedia Theatre to play both the discs themselves and ISO files that I’ve made from my discs.  This setup works well, but the writing is on the wall indicating that it can’t continue this way forever. For one thing, it’s abundantly clear that Microsoft want to wash their hands of Windows Media Center, and for another, Arcsoft suddenly pulled TotalMedia Theatre from its web site last month and it is no longer available.

I need to prepare a contingency plan, so I’ve been looking at alternatives. A couple of years ago, I took a (quick) look at JRiver Media Center. I said at the time:

This is a total solution, replacing Windows Media Center, TMT5 and MyMovies in their entirety. JRiver Media Center is capable of handling Blu-ray. I must admit, on my HTPC it appears to handle them flawlessly, a pleasant change to the current disaster of TMT5. But if I adopted JRiver Media Center, I would also be moving away from WMC and MyMovies, and I do like the user experience of that combination.

JRiver Media Center has been around since 1998, and is currently on version 17 (!). It looks to be a very good product, well-supported, with an extremely enthusiastic user community of more than 26,000 members, some of whom are contributing plug-ins for the main application. However, I’m not sure that I want to move to it. It’s a personal thing, I know, but as I say, I feel very comfortable with WMC and MyMovies.

JMC is now at version 20, but I still have the impression that it has so many bells and whistles that it is overly-complex for what it is. I might take another look at it to see if it strikes me as being more attractive, but I can’t help feeling that it will just have yet more features, knobs and switches bolted on that I would never want to use.

I’ve been looking at a couple of other alternatives over the past few months:  Media Browser and, more recently, Plex. They both have their strengths and weaknesses. A major strength of both of them (as far as I’m concerned) is that they both use a client/server architecture. That is, the core component of both is a media server to which a wide range of clients (TVs, HTPCs, PCs, tablets and smartphones) can connect and play the media. Since I hold all our media on a Windows Home Server 2011 system, that would be the logical place to install and run the media server. For both Media Browser and Plex, the media server can be administered on the WHS 2011 system via a web interface.

MBS 01

PMS 01

The weaknesses differ between the two, but both Media Browser and Plex are fast evolving systems, so changes, bugs, and bug fixes are very much the order of the day. As far as I’m concerned, neither one offers me a complete replacement for our current WMC + MyMovies setup at the moment. Ideally, I would like a combination of the features of the two, because of their current shortcomings.

For example, take the HTPC component of both: Media Browser Theater (MBT) and Plex Home Theater (PHT). MBT is still Alpha software; not even at Beta stage. While it is looking good, it clearly has a long way to go – it is very buggy and feature incomplete at the moment.

MBT 01

PHT, on the other hand, is much further down the development track. It looks good and seems fairly reliable on my HTPC.

PHT 01

Both MBT and PHT are so-called “10 foot interfaces” – they are designed for use on large screens, and to be driven by remote control. It would be really nice if PHT could use the remote I have for Windows Media Center, but for some reason best known to the designers, they have deliberately chosen not to stand upon the shoulders of giants, but to start from scratch with almost entirely a different set of commands.

Both Media Browser and Plex have player clients for Windows 8.1 and Windows Phone 8.1. Here are the Windows 8.1 clients:

MB W8.1 01

Plex W8.1 01

One major shortcoming of the Plex clients (as far as I’m concerned), is that neither of them have no other way of browsing our Music library other than by an Artist view:

Plex W8.1 02

At least the Media Browser Windows 8.1 client offers a choice of being able to browse by Artist, Album or Genre, while the Windows Phone client adds the choice of being able to browse by song as well. However, this is nothing compared to Windows Media Center, which, since 2004 (ten years ago!), has offered a choice of being able to browse by Album, Artist (both per track and per Album), Genre, Song, Playlist, Composer, and Year:

WMC 01

So as far as handling of a Music library is concerned then, both Media Browser and Plex have a very long way to go…

It’s a similar story when it comes to browsing Photo libraries. The Media Browser and Plex clients can only browse folders, while Windows Media Center can browse by Folder, Tags, Date taken, Ratings, Slide shows and Shared (browsing other media servers shared on the local network). The lack of support for browsing by Tags, I find particularly disappointing in the Media Browser and Plex clients. Still, support for these features may yet come. It’s clear, however, that both the Media Browser and the Plex developers view Movies and Video as where the action is. Music and Photo libraries are very much the poor relations.

One area where Media Browser and Plex has surpassed Windows Media Center is that of being able to play content on other devices. WMC was designed as an all-in-one solution, whereas both Media Browser and Plex have been designed as an ecosystem of interconnected server and client devices. So it is possible to browse my movie library on my Windows Tablet, or my Windows Phone; pick a movie, and then start it playing on the HPTC, and continue controlling playback from the browser device.

Plex can do this with its own player applications and selected Smart TVs. Media Browser has possibly a wider reach, because it should be able to work with any DLNA-certified device. However, the theory is not always borne out in practice; I have problems using my Denon AVR to play music sent to it by Media Browser.

Another area where Media Browser and Plex go beyond Windows Media Center is that of being able to access and share media collections outside of the home network. This raises a lot of questions around security, and indeed, Plex seems to have some architectural issues that need to be addressed in this area, and I would not be surprised if Media Browser might have similar questions asked of it. However, as I have no desire to share our media collections outside of our home network, I do not use this capability and have closed off the servers from outside access.

In summary then, both Media Browser and Plex have promise, but I don’t feel that either of them have quite reached the stage where I will commit to one and drop my current Windows Media Center setup. Nonetheless, I’ll be continuing to monitor and try out both.  We are getting ever closer to the release of Windows 10, and Microsoft’s possible removal of Windows Media Center from that operating system. The clock is ticking.

Posted in Computers and Internet, Consumer Electronics | Leave a comment

Particle Fever

I watched Particle Fever last night. It’s a documentary about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs Boson.

It’s staggeringly good.

Equally staggering is the scale of the physics experiment that the LHC embodies. It’s probably the largest experiment ever constructed by humans; built with a budget of 7.5 billion euros by over 10,000 scientists and engineers from more than 100 countries. The documentary easily delivers a sense of awe at the scale of the endeavour, but, more importantly by following six physicists over six years, also gives an insight into the purpose of the project and the passion of the people for the physics behind it.

Physicists fall into two camps: the theorists and the experimentalists, and both were represented in the documentary. Whilst all the featured physicists were interesting and engaging, I was particularly struck by two of them: experimentalist Monica Dunford (who came across as being exactly like Dr. Ellie Arroway, the character played by Jodie Foster, in the film Contact) and the theorist Nima Arkani-Hamed. His explanations, together with those of David Kaplan, another physicist and producer of the film, managed to make the physics clear to me, and pointed out the struggle of theories going on – supersymmetry versus multiverse – that the LHC experiments aim to resolve through discovering and understanding the Higgs Boson.

What I find fascinating is the way in which supersymmetry almost implies support for the strong Anthropic principle (the suspicion that someone/something is twiddling the knobs of the universe to fine-tune physical laws and constants so that the universe as we know it can actually exist). The Multiverse theory, on the other hand, removes the need for all this knob-twiddling, since it posits that our universe, with its particular knob settings, is just one possibility out of a myriad of alternative universes that might exist.

It was hoped that, if the Higgs Boson were to be discovered by the LHC experiments, then this would go some way to favouring one of the above opposing theories. Unfortunately, like some cosmic joke, the data that the LHC has given us about the nature of the Higgs Boson is almost exactly sitting on the fence, with neither theory being able to be declared the outright winner. This is like ascending a mountain, only to discover when you’re at the peak, that it is merely a foothill of some larger chain. If you have passion, as these physicists clearly demonstrate, this will simply act as the spur to drive you on further.

At a time when both religion and politics are increasingly demonstrating their most baleful influences on humanity, it warmed the cockles of my misanthropic old heart to see a scientific endeavour on the scale of the LHC uniting thousands in a common search for knowledge.

Posted in Astronomy, Film, Science | Leave a comment

Windows 10 Technical Preview

Naturally, I couldn’t resist taking a look at Microsoft’s Technical Preview of Windows 10. I signed up to the Windows Insider Program and downloaded a copy of the Windows 10 Technical Preview.

I’ve installed it on my Desktop PC (homebuild) in a Dual Boot configuration. Dual Boot seems the safest option at this stage; Windows 10 is nowhere near complete, and you can’t revert back to Windows 8.1 without doing a complete fresh reinstall of Windows. While I could have run Windows 10  in a Virtual Machine, I prefer to see what happens when running on actual hardware. With the Dual Boot configuration, I can choose to start up either the Windows 10 Technical Preview or the tried and trusted Windows 8.1 operating system. (Addendum: if you’d like to install the Technical Preview in a Virtual Machine, then Ludwig Keck has a “How-to” post over at his This ‘n That blog.)

The main thing to bear in mind is that at this stage, it’s very early days; the focus of the Technical Preview is on Enterprise users (who are probably still running Windows 7 on their PCs) and therefore using the traditional Desktop interface with mouse and keyboard. Touch devices are not the focus of this first Technical Preview. I’m already reading in forums of people who have installed it on touch-enabled devices (e.g. the Microsoft Surface Pro range) and who are reporting that the touch experience is in fact degraded…

For this and other reasons, there is no way that I would install the Technical Preview on my ThinkPad Tablet 2 at this stage. Knowing my luck I’d end up with a useless brick.

I suppose the big news of this Technical Preview is that the Start Menu (familiar to Windows 7 users) is back. This being Windows 10, the Start Menu also has elements of the Windows 8.1 Start Screen tacked onto it in the form of App Tiles:

W10 003

It’s possible to customise this Start Menu (Start Panel?) in a variety of ways (resizing the panel, resizing and shuffling the Tiles) to arrive at your desired configuration. This could be a pure Windows 7-style of Start Menu, or a combination of Menu and Panel:

W10 006

I have to say that, frankly, for me, this all seems like a step back into the past. I’ve got very comfortable with the Start Screen on all my devices (PCs and Tablets), and going back to the damn Start Menu doesn’t thrill me at all. Clearly, there are many for whom the Start Menu is a good thing, but I’m not one of them. I just hope that Microsoft don’t remove the option of having a Start Screen even when Windows 10 is running in Desktop mode.

What I also quickly noticed is that, in this Technical Preview, the Charms Bar has been removed from the Desktop as well. My muscle memory kept expecting to bring out the Charms bar, and I found it irritating that it was not there. This may be an issue with the Technical Preview build, because there’s a Control Panel setting that seems to imply that it should be possible to have the Charms Bar present, even in Desktop mode:

W10 002

However, in this build of the Technical Preview, that checkbox doesn’t work.

One thing I do rather like is that Desktop Windows are now almost borderless, with just a faint shadow effect on underlying Windows:

W10 001

This seems to be a nod to the “flat” design language of the Modern UI. As I say, I rather like it, but I see from the forums that Desktop traditionalists hate it.

If you fire up a Modern UI app, then it displays almost fullscreen (by default, the Taskbar and a Title Bar still show):

W10 004

The big news here is that it is possible to resize the Window of the app. The trouble is, that the content doesn’t resize. It may get reshuffled a bit (but not always, as the Store app shown here illustrates), but fonts and graphics remain at their original size:

W10 005

I don’t really think this works. The Mail app, for example, is really designed for a tablet-sized screen in fullscreen mode. Resizing it on a large desktop, and it looks overblown, even when in a smaller window. When in Desktop mode, I tend to stick to the traditional Windows Live Mail, which is a traditional Desktop application. That’s comfortable. When I’m using my tablet, I use the Mail app. That’s equally comfortable.

Microsoft are making a play that Windows 10 will be one platform that supports a tailored experience for a range of device form factors:


However, at this stage, it is clear that the experience is not tailored, it’s procrustean – at least as far as the current generation of Modern UI apps are concerned. This has to improve.

I’ll be following the developments with interest, but this first Technical Preview is addressing an area that I personally have moved beyond.

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A Comparison of ThinkPad Tablets

In January 2013, I bought a Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2 for myself. Since I’m firmly in the Windows ecosystem camp, I didn’t want to get either an iPad or an Android tablet, and the TPT2 was the first Windows tablet that started to tick all the boxes I had in my list. Being a tablet with a second generation Intel Atom processor at its heart, it was no powerhouse, but it suited me very well.

Fast forward to now, and there are tablets available with the next generation of Intel’s Atom, and new low-power versions of the Atom’s big brothers, the Core processor range, are also starting to appear in devices. For the past few months I’ve been comparing my trusty TPT2 to Lenovo’s new ThinkPad 10 tablet, and to Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3, wondering whether to make a move to a newer device. I finally came to the decision, after much vacillation, to sit this round out, hang on to my TPT2,  and wait for up to a year before purchasing a replacement device.

However, yesterday a small box was delivered, courtesy of Lenovo, which contained a ThinkPad 10. I’ve been fairly active in a couple of online forums trying to help people with TPT2s, and Lenovo have sent me a TP10 on long-term loan so that I can move into helping with TP10 issues. Very nice of them, I must say, but I’m not going to let that sway my judgement.

I thought that one way to get started would be to compare the TP10 with its predecessor, the TPT2. It should be an improvement over the earlier product, but is that true in every respect? Let’s take a look…

First of all, here’s the comparison of the basic specifications of the particular models of the tablets I currently have:

ThinkPad Tablet 2 ThinkPad 10
Processor Intel Atom Z2760 (2 cores, 1.80GHz, 1MB cache) Intel Atom Z3795 (4 cores, burst 2.40GHz, 2MB cache)
Display 1366 x 768 (16:9) 1920 x 1200 (16:10)
Memory 2GB / 800MHz LPDDR2 4GB / 1067MHz LPDDR3
Storage 64GB eMMC
+ MicroSD up to 32GB
128 GB eMMC
+ MicroSD up to 64GB
O.S. Windows 8.1 Pro* 32bit Windows 8.1 Pro 64bit
Digitizer Pen Yes Yes
WLAN 11a/b/g/n 11a/b/g/n
Bluetooth 4.0 4.0
GNSS Yes Yes
NFC Yes No

*The TPT2 originally came with Windows 8 installed. I upgraded it to Windows 8.1 when that became available.

You’ll notice that the TP10 that I have on loan does not have WWAN or NFC fitted. These are available as options for some models of the TP10 line. Other than that, it is clear from the table that most of the important elements have performance improvements over the TPT2 equivalents.  This is also borne out in benchmarks. Here, for example are the Windows Experience Index scores:


TPT Comparison 02


TPT Comparison 01

Whilst the gaming graphics and hard disk subscores are only slightly improved for the TP10 over the TPT2, the other measures show substantial improvement. That translates in practice into a snappier feel for the TP10 over my TPT2. Office programs start up much faster, for example.

Physically, the two tablets are close in size, the TP10 (on the left) being slightly taller and narrower than the TPT2:


Also shown in this photo is the Lenovo Quickshot cover fitted to the TP10, with an Armour Dog cover from Lente Designs fitted to my TPT2 on the right. The Armour Dog cover wraps around the TPT2, and is very stable when used as a stand, but it does add thickness to the tablet when closed. The Quickshot cover is thinner, and only covers the screen (it can be completely folded back under the TP10 in use). It can also act as a stand, but it is less stable, and with less angles to choose from.


You’ll notice that it also has a loop to hold the TP10’s pen. Since the TP10 is slightly thinner than the TPT2, it is not possible to store even a small stylus in the tablet itself, as was done for the TPT2, so Lenovo has delivered a normal sized pen.

The TP10 has a larger display and a higher resolution than the TPT2, and I like the 16:10 aspect ratio of the TP10 over the 16:9 ratio of the TPT2. When I’m reading books, for example, I prefer the TP10 experience (on the right) over the slightly longer and narrower page rendered on the TPT2:


The difference in aspect ratio also means that I get five rows of Tiles on the Start screen with the TP10 versus four on the TPT2:

TPT Comparison 04

TPT Comparison 03

The TP10 is certainly sleeker than the TPT2, but there are aspects about the case that I find less ergonomic than the TPT2. For example, the TP10’s buttons are flush with the case, rather than being slightly raised as with the TPT2. Finding and using buttons (e.g. the volume controls) on the TP10 is an exercise in frustration for me.

On both the TP10 and the TPT2, the USB socket has a cover. It may be just me, but the cover on the TP10 seems much more fiddly to pop off and to put back in place than the one on the TPT2. Here’s a photo of the cover on the TP10, and next to it, the power charging socket:


The power charging socket on the TP10 is proprietary to Lenovo; on the TPT2 it was a micro-USB. This means that you can’t use a micro-USB phone charger with the TP10 in an emergency. Some people might view that as a drawback. I’ve noticed one other concern about the design and position of this socket. Here’s a photo of the TP10 being charged while being used flat on a desk:


Notice how I have folded the Quickshot cover back under the tablet, as I think most people would tend to do. For one thing, it now protects the smooth metal back of the tablet from getting scratched. However, if the pen is stowed in its loop, then it pushes up on the charging plug and raises the tablet slightly on that side. I just wonder what the long term effects and stresses will be as a result.

The TP10 comes with a lot of software applications and apps pre-installed. This is stuff such as:

  • Lenovo Companion
  • Lenovo Support
  • Lenovo Tap to Share (QuickCast)
  • AccuWeather
  • Evernote
  • Norton Studio
  • Skype
  • Zinio
  • 1-Year Office 365 Personal subscription (Trial only on Win8.1 Pro)
  • Norton Internet Security 2014 with 30 days of virus protection
  • Nitro Pro 8
  • Lenovo Solution Center
  • ThinkVantage System Update
  • Lenovo Reach
  • Hightail –metro (cloud storage)
  • Maxthon Browser
  • Lenovo Photo Editor (by CyberLink)
  • Lenovo Video Editor (by CyberLink)

Frankly, most of this I view as Bloatware. The first thing I did was remove all but a couple of packages from the TP10. I then left the TP10 to update itself with Windows and Lenovo driver updates. A few hours, and 60+ updates later, it was ready to use.

I uninstalled Office 2013 Home & Student from my TPT2 and installed it on to the TP10. I needed to activate it via the telephone, rather than the painless internet route, but after punching in reams of numbers into my phone and into the TP10, Microsoft was happy and activated Office. After another round of software updates, this time for Office 2013, I think the TP10 is now finally ready to be put to work.

I’ll report back over the coming months on how I’m getting on.

Addendum: I do rather wish that manufacturers would strive for consistency with accessories across generations. For example:

  • The TPT2 has a mini-HDMI port; the TP10 has a micro-HDMI port. So I have to buy yet another HDMI cable for the TP10…
  • The Docking connectors are different, so I have to buy a new TP10 Dock, I can’t re-use the TPT2 Dock.
  • The TPT2 has a VGA Adaptor that fits into the Docking connector on the tablet. I use that to connect my TPT2 to a VGA projector in meetings. There is no equivalent adaptor available for the TP10. In fact, apparently the only way to connect a TP10 to a VGA projector is to use the Lenovo USB 3.0 to DVI/VGA Adaptor. Note that is a USB 3.0 connector. The TP10 only has USB 2.0 on the tablet; do I have to get the TP10 Dock to provide a USB 3.0 connection for the adaptor?…


Posted in Computers and Internet | 2 Comments


A wonderful episode on Doctor Who last night: Listen. Right up there with Blink in terms of plot dovetailing and hide-behind-the-sofa factor. Clara is developing into a nicely-rounded character, and the restaurant scenes between her and Danny Pink were very good in their toe-curling embarrassments, and reminiscent of Moffat’s earlier work in Coupling.

I thought it was interesting that the central idea in Blink was that you must not look away from a Weeping Angel, but that in Listen, you must never look at a Listener; polar opposites, but both equally capable of racheting up the fear factor. And the reveals of the boy in the barn and the barn itself at the end – well, I gasped at the audacity of it.

I liked the way that the central idea of there being listeners hiding under every bed was never entirely resolved one way or the other. Is it all in our imaginations or not?

Classic Doctor Who.

Posted in Television | 2 Comments


There’s a new film coming out (if you’ll pardon the pun): Pride. It tells the true story of a group of lesbians and gay men from London who went deep into the Welsh valleys to support the miners during the dark days of the miners’ strike in the mid-1980s.

It looks as though it’s wonderful, and will take me back to remembering those times. There’s a good interview with actor Bill Nighy and writer Stephen Beresford here.

Addendum: Mark Simpson has a terrific post about the film and his recollections of being involved with the LGSM group. Shake that bucket!

Posted in Film, LGBT Politics, Society | 4 Comments

A Romp With Robin

Just finished watching the Doctor Who episode: Robot of Sherwood. My, that was fun! Mark Gatiss writing at the top of his form, with lots of jokes and a serious question of what it means to be a hero. Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman. Tom Riley, et al, delivered in spades. A terrific episode, despite the hasty re-editing to remove a beheading.

Loved it, from beginning to end. Capaldi is going to be one of the great Doctors, mark my words.

Posted in Television | 1 Comment