media center shoot out – ps3, windows media center, mac mini

so it’s been a while since i’ve made the move back to the PS3 as my media center. the ps3 is connected to the tv and so far things have been pretty good. if i had to do it all over again, i’m convinced now that i would go one of two ways:

1) PS3 + transcoding/file server (current solution)
2) mac mini + file server

let’s first start with the ways that i just absolutely wouldn’t go with:
1) PS3 + file server (no transcoding server)
2) windows media center

PS3 + file server (no transcoding server)
this solved about 75% of all of my problems. the ps3 natively supports the divx codec (and also xvid), but just supporting the codec doesn’t mean that it will play all divx-encoded files. i don’t know what is going on with how some people encode video, but sometimes it just doesn’t work.

what was great about this solution is that i can run a DNLA server (mediatomb) on a cheap NAS (DNS-323) and have a very cheap, large media store that consumes very little power. it seemed like the ideal solution until i found out that:
1) codec support for the PS3 is not as wide as i had hoped and i often have problems playing AVI files.
2) mkv files are not supported at all.
3) the NAS isn’t powerful enough to transcode on the fly.

windows media center
this seemed like the right way to go. not only do you have full access to your library, but codec support isn’t an issue. if it plays on your computer, it’ll play on the windows media center. additionally, i got a tv tuner for it so that i can record tv whenever i wanted.

my biggest gripes with this solution is that the interface is awful. not only is it awful, it’s SLOW. it’s hard to navigate large libraries of content because the display of the content is done by thumbnails, so it’s hard to see what episode of what show you are on.

sure, there are plugins that people have created to help alleviate UI issues. the best plugin ever is video browser which made media center usable again for me. in fact, i loved this interface. the only problem with it is that it sometimes just doesn’t work. in fact, it would lock up the media center and i’d end up with a blank screen. it was so bad that it made it unusable for me because the only way i could fix it was rebooting the media center.

so it’s true that this option does let you record tv shows, i don’t really record tv anyway, so it’s not a feature i miss. i actually still use the media center to watch OTA HDTV live, like sports.

and now on to what i would do:
PS3 + transcoding file server
this is my current solution for a media center. the transcoding file server is a windows box that handles all of the storage and transcoding needs. i use the fantastic ps3mediaserver for as the streaming server. it supports thumbnails for videos which is a nice touch. currently, there’s 3TB of storage on this machine and it seems like it is plenty of hard drive space for my needs. if i ever need to go with more, it’s pretty easy to upgrade.

what i like about this:
the PS3 interface is pretty slick, it’s clean, and easy to use. once you install the streaming server, codec support isn’t a problem because the streaming server will transcode video on the fly for you. that’s fantastic.

the PS3 is probably the best blu-ray player on the market and looks to be pretty future-proof.

what i don’t like about this:
all this transcoding requires that you have a semi-beefy machine that can handle the transcoding for you. this pretty much means another full-fledged computer and then you have to deal with what OS to run. i’ve been running windows, but linux is definitely a viable option here to cut costs.

the PS3 doesn’t natively support samba which just seems like such a glaring missing feature until you dig a little further and realize that sony is behind the whole DLNA movement. it’s intentionally not being supported and probably never will be.

the PS3 also consumes a lot of power. this solution basically requires 2 computers on all the time to work.

2) mac mini + file server
this is the other option that i really, really struggled with. it is certainly cheaper than the ps3/file server route. there are a couple pieces of software that look really good on the mac for your media center needs. plex is my current favorite. it just looks beautiful. it’s a derivative of XMBC, so codec support isn’t going to be an issue.

you still need a file server because the mac mini just doesn’t have a lot of storage space, but that can easily be handled with a cheap NAS, like the DNS-323.

no blu-ray abilities here, though, so you’ll need a dedicated blu-ray player to deal with this. since i already have the ps3, it seemed like having just one point of entry for all my media serving needs was the easiest way to go. there are very limited tv tuner options for the mac, as well. i haven’t looked too closely into it, i think it’s possible, but it’s not integrated into the media center software.

overall, though, this solution looks pretty promising. there are a couple of other media center apps out there that deserve a look:
boxee – another XBMC derivative, but boxee has a couple of things going for it that makes it unique. the first thing is that they have a social networking component to the app so you can see what your friends have recently seen. that’s kind of cool, kind of invasive. depends on what you watch, i guess.

the other cool thing about boxee is that they have a free iphone app that acts as a remote control. that is just so cool! =P

XBMC w/ aeon skin – i have to admit that i’m not very fond of the interface for the default XBMC compared to other offerings, but a friend had just recommended trying out the aeon skin and it looks very slick.