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All posts for the month December, 2014

mediabrowserI have explained how the free media player software, Plex, is able to serve the movie, TV and music content on our PCs to our Roku boxes and a Raspberry Pi computer (see previous post, 007 24/7 on Plex Media Server).

But I must let you know about a Plex problem with movie and TV content ripped directly from DVDs into MKV format.

As noted before, MKV is a container format, and in this case, what it contains is the original MPEG2 content from the DVD. Broadcast digital TV is also in the MPEG2 format.

Newer Plex software releases seem to have trouble transcoding some of these MKV files for the Roku Plex channel. When our PCs (running Plex Media Server software) stream these MKVs to any of the Rokus, there is a bit of juddering and pixilation. I get the same result with 802.11g wifi as with wired Ethernet. It’s not a CPU issue, since both a weak Celeron-powered PC and a powerful quad-core PC produce the same result.

Plex’ original transcoder was the free ffmpeg software tool. But Plex’ latest software releases rely strictly on the new Plex Transcoder, based on ffmpeg, but rewritten by their team. The way the Roku Plex channel handles the new transcoder may be the cause of the problem, and I have reported it on their PlexPass forum.

(Here is Plex’ release note for the 0.9.10.0 version, Sep 8, 2014: “The legacy transcoder, which is available as an option in some Plex clients, will be removed soon. Please be sure to report specific cases where you still see better results when using it.”)

Now, it is true that once these MKVs are converted to MP4 using Handbrake (with Rokoding settings), they play perfectly on Plex. And MP4 file sizes are smaller, and the files are more usable with other devices. But I am a bit lazy, and would prefer not to convert if I don’t need to.

I have discovered another entrant in the media player system arena that can transcode and stream these MKVs to Roku perfectly: Media Browser. Media Browser uses ffmpeg as its transcoder.

MB also uses ffmpeg to transcode Windows Media Center broadcast TV recordings (.WTV format), served to MB by free ServerWMC software. As we noted at the top, broadcast TV is MPEG2. You would probably need a powerful processor and an Ethernet or switch connection, and maybe a Roku 3 for this to even have a shot at working acceptably.

(The Raspberry Pi decodes MPEG2 video content in hardware, with a one-time $4 MPEG2 license. Thus it handles MKV and WTV files with ease. It can also act as a Plex client with the PlexBMC beta software.)

Fortunately, Media Browser works with media organized to Plex standards, so no changes to your file system are needed. Setup is different from Plex, so you have to spend a little time with it initially. But it is great to see that Bond marathon playing perfectly on Roku, and not just the Raspberry Pi.

Plex and Media Browser server software coexists just fine on our PCs. So I use both. I prefer Plex’ presentation, but MB is fine.

Eventually, I’m sure Plex will fix their transcoder/Roku problem, but it’s good to have an alternative. Did I mention that Media Browser is also free?

Tracfone MOTOGO EX431G: thin & pocket-sized

In a September post, Cheap & cheaper cell phone deals in Tulsa, I mentioned that Sir Paul’s cousin told me about a $3/month cell phone deal from T-Mobile (30 minutes of talk or 30 text messages — or any combination of the two, up to 30).

Since I have 9 service days left on my $7/mo Tracfone, it’s time to review my options.

I see that T-Mobile still offers the Pay-As-You-Go deal, and you can bring your own phone as long as it is unlocked, GSM-capable, and with a SIM card slot.

Sadly, both of my recent phones (Tracfone and Net10) are locked to their carrier. The lock is on a firmware level, so no software monkey business will let me liberate them.

I also see that the cheapest deal T-Mobile offers with a phone included is $74.99, which includes:

  • Samsung T199 phone: $29.99
  • Refill Card: +$30.00
  • SIM Starter Kit: +$15.00

That is all in addition to the $3/mo service fee, on which I would save only $4/mo, or $48/year on the service.

I would need to stay with the T-Mobile deal for 2 years to reach the break-even point.

So this year, I’ll stick with the cheapo Tracfone for my infrequent out-of-the-house usage. I didn’t feel like braving the mall anyway.

However, if you have on hand an unlocked, GSM-capable phone with SIM card slot, you might like the T-Mobile deal.

Of course, I still have my zero-cost, wifi-only smartphone to send unlimited texts via Google Voice, and control our home automation and home theater devices.

(PS, just re-upped with Tracfone with a 365-day, 800-minute, $85/year offer. With taxes and fees, that comes to 66 min/mo @ $7.85/mo. Should I receive the gift of gab for Xmas, I will be all set.)

Our custom lineups

Our custom lineups

In a previous post, Android home theater and automation apps, I mentioned the Titan TV app:

“TitanTV – Free. Displays a channel guide for the Tulsa broadcast stations we watch, my wife’s preferred digital cable channels, or the analog cable channels, The latter is particularly useful, since the only on-screen analog channel guide is the super-slow-scrolling, half-screen Channel 3.”

To create these custom lineups, sign up at titantv.com.

Once you log in, create a New Channel Lineup. Base it on the broadcast and cable services in your area.

At left: our three custom lineups.

For the broadcast list, I simply deleted the channels we don’t watch, including shopping, religious, kids, and a few that are outside our service area.

We use the analog listing exactly as TitanTV has it.

I also created a list with my wife’s go-to digital channels.

2014-11-25 08.02.242014-11-25 08.02.462014-11-25 08.03.06
(Click each image for a close-up.)

Titan TV is the best app I have found, but it has a problem every month or two: it forgets to let you be logged in.

Whenever this happens, I use another app called Android Assistant.

AA lets you Clear Data for Titan TV, which restores your ability to log in. It’s a pain, but Titan TV is too useful.

If anyone has a better app, I would love to hear about it.

Effective 12/10/2014. Cox Channels 1-999 are Standard Definition, 1001-1999 are HD. Specific changes described on this page.

My previous research on Tulsa Cable suggests that when reorgs occur, they tend to presage price increases. Then again, the passage of time itself seems to presage price increases about as well.

For the record, Cox says, “There will be no impact to your bill.  Prices are based on tiers of service, not individual channels.”

Complete printable channel listing here:

http://www.cox.com/wcm/en/residential/datasheet/genrebaseline-up_online.pdf