Monday, 6 October 2008

Media Center on the Cheap

A while ago, as in not that long but before our recent holiday (a period which seems very hazy this side of the holiday) I posted about the virtues of a Mythbuntu PC media center. This all capable box will do everything for you other than iron your clothes: it would play your music, DVDs, downloads, high definition TV, and high definition recordings.
Alas, the media center world is not all roses. For a start, a properly built media center using up to date technology would cost $800 plus, plus potentially much more if the Australian Dollar continues the way it has been behaving lately. Sure, cost can be easily cut by settling for inferior hardware - you don't really need the latest Intel CPU to run Linux - but once you start scavenging for cheaper hardware you can no longer find your parts at the cheaper shops that specialize in selling the latest in mass quantities. Which brings me to the second major disadvantage of the media center, which is the amount of time and effort building such a machine takes. The amount of research required in order to do it, do it well, and do something that will feel at home next to my audiophile grade components, is astronomical.
Besides, we're really pretty indifferent about most of the fancy capabilities the media center sports. We don't watch TV off the air other than news, so why should we want to not watch it in high definition? Not to mention recording high definition material we won't be watching. And as for managing our MP3 collection, don't we already have an MP3 player and an armada of other equipment that will play MP3s?

So we have decided to go for a cheaper option. And the cheaper option is a DVD player with a USB port that can play DIVX files, a machine that will do the entertainment we actually care for: play DVDs and play downloads. While at it, it would be nice if said DVD player also does upscaling to 720p so we can get the most of our TV (even if upscaling is a far cry from true high definition), and it would also be nice if said DVD player sports an HDMI connection. An HDMI connection not only allows for the latest and greatest in picture and sound, it also handles both the picture and the sound in one cable thus reducing living room clutter.
Now, if you want to spend your money on a good DVD player, you can easily spend several tens of thousands of dollars. However, as with everything, the law of diminishing marginal benefit kicks in, and with DVDs being very established technology it kicks in really early. For mere mortals like me, there is not much of a reason to go beyond an Oppo DVD player; I, however, chose not to even go as far as Oppo, mainly because Oppo's policy is to sell directly from the USA (as in, not through shops). You can get them in Australia but it's all mail order and if something goes wrong things won't be nice.
So we stooped even lower and went to JB Hi Fi, where we got ourselves a Toshiba DVD player for a bit more than $100. Toshiba makes some good DVD players now, at least as far as picture quality is concerned, because ever since they lost the HD DVD battle they put their efforts into making the most out of DVDs. Indeed, "our" Toshiba had a stunning picture; however, its USB port failed to convince us, choosing to completely ignore or fail to play more than a third of the files we threw at it. Worse, it would very frequently and for no particular reason skip over parts of the program when playing USB material, rendering it pretty useless with downloads. It therefore wasn't good enough to satisfy our media center on the cheap requirements.
So we went back to JB and replaced the Toshiba with a Pioneer player costing slightly more than $130. The difference was noticeable: for a start, the setup menus, user interface and the remote were so much more user friendly and clearer than the Tosh it made me wonder whether Toshiba actually designed its DVD player for use by humans. Second, so far it played every download file we threw at it other than one (I'm still trying to figure why that particular one was signalled out), and it played them well and fluently. On the down side, its picture is slightly but noticeably inferior to the Toshiba one.
Up till now we used to play downloads through a laptop, but now that we do it through the DVD player and use the player's remote it feels as if we've been upgraded from economy class in Lufthansa to first class in Singapore Airlines.
Please welcome our new media center!

1 comment:

Moshe Reuveni said...

It seems as if the Pioneer will not play high definition encoded files through its USB input. Given that DVD players are standard definition beasts by definition, that shouldn't really come as a surprise.