Scott Hanselman

BeyondTV4 Upgrade Review - Media Center Alternative?

November 13, '05 Comments [4] Posted in Reviews | Coding4Fun | Web Services | Gaming
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I paid for Beyond TV 3.5 and a Hauppauge PVR-250 on my main desktop machine a year before I made a Media Center PC. Interestingly, the Media Center PC has turned into a heavy MAME arcade machine and is rarely used, if ever, for TV. Perhaps that will change with the XBox 360's new Media Center Extender (as the original XBox Media Extender sucked egregiously) but we will see. Until then, I keep ending up watching TV on my main PC, using Beyond TV. So, it made sense when Beyond TV 4.0 was release a few days ago that I give it a trial. Here's a few impressions

Upgrading

The upgrade from Beyond TV 3.5 was a complete fiasco. Not failure, fiasco, there's a difference. During the setup I was informed that a number of .ax files (.ax files are actually just COM DLLs that have a different extension. They are codecs for the decoding things like video and audio.) were in use can couldn't be overwritten. My options were "Retry" (Um, can't!), "Ignore" (Um, dangerous!), and "Cancel" (Um, and do what?), so I, like a putz, selected ignore. In retrospect I should have selected Cancel and figured out who was locking the files. But, I charged on.

Interestingly, to me at least, Beyond TV 4 decided that it was cool to put itself in the existing Beyond TV 3 folder called c:\program files\snapstream media\beyondtv3. Since it's not version 3, that seemed ingenuous, but perhaps I'm being too hard. Either way, it failed to start up and was unable to show video. The install was hosed at that point.

Turned out that since I'd just tried a Web Cam conversion using the new MSN Messenger 7.5 and a little QCAM USB Gooseneck camera I picked up, that MSN Messenger had loaded every registered codec on the system into msnmsgr.exe's memory space. So, I blew away Messenger and figured I'd just run the installer again and select "repair." Which would have totally worked had there been a "repair" option.

Long story short, totally uninstall and reinstall of 4.0. Afterwards though, it started fine.

Footprint

Windows Task ManagerColor me dorky but I always like to check out the system footprint of applications I run. Even more so since I started running without a paging (virtual memory) file.

Points to Snapstream for prefacing all the new processes with BTV*, but still, EIGHT processes? Um, ouch. Of course, who am I to complain considering that Microsoft released a whole new OS. (Yes, I know that's not totally true, but it's true from a marketecture point of view, so phooey on you.) There's also an extensive, but confusing series of COM interfaces that Clemens has seen fit to mess with, although there's also a Web Services API. We'll see what happens with that.

Chunks of BeyondTV are written in .NET 1.1 and there's no fewer than 28 .exe.config files that remind .NET that BeyondTV prefers .NET 1.1. There's over 130 DLLS and 30 EXEs that make the whole thing happen. It's a pretty complex goings on, but fortunately it's all in one folder and its footprint hasn't affect anything other than my curiosity. I've found it to be fantastically stable if a bit of a memory hog, but certainly less in total than any single Microsoft Office program.

Weird Things

  • Beyond TV 4 has a new "Lock Aspect Ratio" option, which is nice, but the only options are 4:3 or 16:9. That's not particularly useful when my monitor (and most desktop Widescreen LCDs) are 16:10. Valve Software's Steam is the BEST when it comes to awareness of the various aspect ratios available. GuildWars also handles odd ratios with grace.
  • Documentation is still a little sloppy. There's references to Beyond TV's 3.5 directory, old EXEs and what-not mixed in amongst the new stuff within the CHM (Help) files. Just shows a lack of attention to detail.
  • The "Web Admin" option seems to have disappeared from the right-click menu of the Beyond TV Tray Icon. The Web Server (Cassini-like) still runs on http://localhost:8129 so you can still get to it, but it seems odd to have been removed not only from the Tray but the Start Menu also. Also, it appears to be handled by BTVNetworkService.exe now, not BTVWebServer, but they both ship with 4.0.
    • UPDATE: The "Open Web Admin" feature exists but it's off by default now. Oddly enough I had to enable it FROM the Web Interface, so not exactly sure how Mort is expected to turn that chicken-and-egg feature on.
  • Beyond TV 4.0 has a great 3D accelerated video mode that does transparent overlays for all the interface elements. However, on my dual monitor machine it only works well on my primary monitor. When I try to view the TV on the secondary monitor the framerate drops precipitously. However, when I switch it to software-only rendering everything's great on the second monitor. It's more valuable for me to be able to use the second monitor as a TV, so I turned software rendering on against their recommendation and it works fine. I don't notice much of a different but the CPU does jump from 10% to 30%.
    • Literally as I was writing this sentence, while running Beyond TV 4 in Hardware Accelerated DX9 mode, I moved it from the secondary to the primary monitor and POOF. BIOS. Like, POOF. No warning, just BOOM. So, I'm running Software Accelerated now. Also interestingly that never happened while running Beyond TV 3.5, but in their defense I just upgraded my ATI's video drivers and we all know how ATI's known for stable video drivers.

Great Things

  • Beyond TV - Video Qualities - Mozilla FirefoxBeyond TV 4 has an SDK available (expect a Coding4Fun article on this from me) that includes COM, .NET and more importantly Web Service support. Any ideas on what I could do with a PVR that's totally controllable via Web Service? OK, how about something Clemens HASN'T already done? :)
  • Beyond TV 4 includes (yet another) UPnP server that makes the recorded video available to other devices on your network. Personally, I've started using TwonkyVision's server and have found it excellent and more compatible than Windows Media Connect, Nero, or any others, but Beyond TVs is meant to work primarily with their Beyond TV Link product. Beyond TV Link lets you install a small client on machines in your house that don't have a TV. It's a "Media Center Extender" that is specific to Beyond TV.
  • Beyond TV has a crapload of advanced features, most made available in the Web Admin. I like the "ShowSqueeze" option that takes my 1 hour=3 gig MPEG2 files and makes them WMV file overnight. I squish those onto the PSP.
  • It also added support for DivX as a target format along with a million other formats (see screenshot at right)
  • You can use the Web Admin as a zero-install web-only client to watch recorded shows and Beyond TV will automatically transcode (squish) them on the fly as it streams them to you. This makes it possible for me to watch my recorded TV from a hotel after VPN'ing in to the house.

All in all, it's a great product for the money despite my complaints. I used Beyond TV 3.5 daily for over a year without trouble, and I'm confident Beyond TV 4 is an improvement on 3.5. The MAJOR feature that was added in Beyond TV 4 that I wasn't able to test is its support for HDTV. I had an ATI HDTV All-In-Wonder but it was such a complete piece of crap that I took it back. Perhaps I'll try to get my hands on some of the newer generation HDTV cards and add to this post.

If you've got an existing machine and you're even slightly thinking about a Media Center PC, just spend the ~$150 and get a Tuner/BeyondTV bundle. Seriously, I know lots of folks out there who are looking seriously at MCEPC's for more than $1000, but could really save some money with a simpler product like Beyond TV 4.

Now playing: Original Broadway Cast "Rent" - Take Me or Leave Me

About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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Sunday, November 13, 2005 2:32:07 PM UTC
Two other pieces of software that I think everyone should evaluate when considering rolling their own HTPC: MediaPortal and GB-PVR. Both are written in C#, both are free, and both are commercial quality!

MediaPortal is open source and derives from the XBMC project. Source code is hosted on SourceForge:

http://mediaportal.sourceforge.net/

GB-PVR is closed source (maintained by one guy in New Zealand), but still free, and has an open plug-in and skinning architecture. (Be sure to check out the Solitaire plug-in [wink]):

http://www.gbpvr.com


GB-PVR is also very popular as the server component for the Hauppauge MVP:

http://www.hauppauge.com/pages/products/data_mediamvp.html
Sunday, November 13, 2005 4:14:29 PM UTC
In defense of ATI, I use a Radeon 9800XT at home with the latest Catalysts, Radeon Mobility 9700 on my laptop with a pretty old driver version (mid-2005 I think) and conversely use a GeForce 9200 at work. Within 6 months of buying the 9800XT (which was about two years ago) the stability of the Catalyst drivers has got on par with NVidia drivers, and performance steadily increased between versions.

In short, there are no stability issues per se with ATI drivers, certainly not more so than with NVidia drivers. (We use both NVidia and ATI cards at work in dual-monitor configurations; NVidia has a minor usability advantage here, but the ATI cards are rock-stable.)

Monday, November 14, 2005 10:36:47 PM UTC
"and POOF. BIOS. Like, POOF. No warning, just BOOM."

Gotta love that- the XP default settings will reboot on a bugcheck instead of showing you the bluescreen. If you like investigating that kind of thing (or at least verifying that the faulting module was what you thought), shut off "Automatically Restart" under System Control Panel->Advanced->Startup and Recovery->System Failure, and you'll see the familiar old BSOD. 'Course that sucks when your machine bugchecks and you're not home to kick it, but it's nice for troubleshooting...
Matt Davis
Tuesday, November 15, 2005 6:05:45 PM UTC
A very fair and balanced review of our product. I'm really glad you enjoy BTV4 =) That M$ bug is hella annoying, even for us developer here at SnapStream (who ironically enough use MSN messenger to chat with each other ). Another thing that you might enjoy is our selection of plugins for BTV 4: http://forums.snapstream.com/vb/showthread.php?t=27885 . We will be releasing a more organized sub-site of snapstream too that will make 3rd party development even easier once the BTV 4 sdk is stabilized and the higher ups give us an ok. So I hope you can expect to see more plugins and skins in the future!

Richard
SnapStream Support
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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in any way.