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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Media Streaming: You can take it with you...

For several years, I have been playing around with different ways to access and stream media from a TV tuner or home PC. Usually, it's just an experiment to see how much I can do with a Windows Media Center system, or to show off the capabilities of various devices, like my Windows-based PDA phone...

There are several ways to do this by using a PC or with stand-alone hardware such as a Slingbox or similar device to transmit the audio or video, and using a network-enabled PDA, phone, notebook or PC to control and receive the streaming media. You can also stream media directly from a PC to another web-enabled device with nothing much more than some software designed for the purpose, such as "orb" which can stream to any device that support Windows Media Player or RealPlayer. Another popular streaming format on many sites is Apple's QuickTime, which like Media Player can playback streaming media as it is received, or load and play audio or video files already on your system.

What is Streaming Media?
Streaming media differs from downloading and playback in that you can be viewing (or listening) to the media as the packets of data are being sent over the network. Streaming media files are generally not saved to the local computer's drive, but are "buffered" in a temporary file that contains only the immediate data required to playback the media for the next short period of time. The size of the buffer may be something you can set in the player's preferences, or be limited by the speed of the data transfer itself.

Streaming allows one to view "Live TV" remotely and on devices that have no TV tuner, just a network connection. Streaming data is transmitted by a remote "server" and played back in near real time by the receiving device. Audio or video playback can begin as soon as enough data has been received and stored in the client's buffer.

Some well known examples of streaming media that you may already be using includes video steaming such as youtube.com and hulu.com and steaming audio such as pandora.com. Streaming media may be in the form of audio or video podcasts, movie trailers,
commercials, as well as real-time applications such as educational lectures (e-learning), web meeting, Voice over IP telephone and video conferencing, and the list goes on.

Check out your local radio station websites, many offer live streaming-audio of the over-the-air broadcast. TV stations, including many broadcast or cable network site now offer clips, previews, or even the current episodes for viewing.

Streaming has been available for years, but typically required having a dedicated media server that would compress and transmit the packets of media data over the network to the remote clients. The capability became more widespread as manufacturers added streaming media functions to software used to control the TV tuner adapter along with recording and direct playback features.

Companies such as ATI offered applications bundled with their TV Tuners that could stream live TV or recorded shows to remote systems running a special streaming media client.

When Microsoft introduced their Media Center version of Windows, it included the capability for Media Extenders to remotely access, control, and view TV and other media available on the Media Center PC. These Media Extenders could be a stand-alone network device, or something like an Xbox 360. Generally, Media Center systems and Media Extenders are designed to be used on "private" networks, and don't give you much, if any, capability to access your media across the Internet.

The quality of the playback is directly tied to the data transfer speed. With dial-up-networking (remember those telephone modems?), streaming is possible, but will only support very small player resolutions, and even then, it may be "choppy" or encounter delays if you have any noise or loss of signal. Although slightly better, 802.11b wireless networking has similar limitations.

To use a Windows Media Center Extender to view live TV or video playback, Microsoft originally recommended having at least an 802.11bg or 802.11abg connection. With wired networking, the higher data transfer speeds make even remote viewing of High Definition TV possible. Again, the quality of the playback and the player resolution will be limited by the actual transfer speeds between your devices. This means that the uplink speed of your media "server" may be the limiting factor, and if you are connecting across the Internet, you may also have occasional issues with slowdowns between the various service providers.

Sling Media's Slingbox products were one of the first stand-alone devices that allow you to stream audio or video over the Internet or just across your home network. A Slingbox is designed to connect directly to your cable or satellite source, although you can attach any compatible device. The Slingbox Pro-HD not only supports High Definition signals (both incoming and streaming them to you), but also incorporates analog and HD digital (ATSC) tuners allowing you to stream your video without changing the channel on your big screen TV.

The Slingbox Solo does not have integrated tuners, meaning you need a way to control your cable or satellite TV tuner box to view a particular show. Like the original Slingbox, both the Solo and Pro-HD have what is called a "data blaster", which is nothing more then a pair of Infrared LEDs that can transmit the necessary remote-control signals to your tuner device, turning it on and off, changing channels, etc. remotely, using the SlingPlayer application. (To compare the features, check out http://www.slingbox.com/go/slingbox-prohd-help-me-choose)

sling box

[caption id="attachment_329" align="aligncenter" width="205" caption="The Slingbox Solo supports pass-through of composite, S-video, and component video signals."]sling box[/caption]

I had opportunity to play around with a Slingbox Solo, and experimented with some different sources and remote players. The Slingbox Solo has three different audio/video inputs; Component Video such as from a High Definition Player or HD converter box, Composite Video and S-video. The Slingbox solo does not steam HD, it just has a compatible signal input, if you want to stream 720 or 1080 HD signals, you need the Pro-HD version of the Slingbox.

Coming up with some input signals for the Solo was becoming a challenge, since I only have cable-ready devices, and don't use anything with a component video output. I do have an S-VHS camera, but to test the signal, I simply connected an S-video cable from one of my computer video cards to the Slingbox and toggled the display to include the S-video out. When I brought up the SlingPlayer software, and selected the source as S-video, I had a blurry, but recognizable view of a Windows desktop. Although S-video is crisper than a composite video signal, it's still in the 640x480 resolution range. Squishing a 1024x768 display image down to the much lower analog TV resolution signal doesn't do much for the viewing experience if you were trying to use the system normally.

Viewing a full-screen video or other media on the computer would be no worse then a normal analog TV broadcast. For a composite video test, I connected a DVD player and started a movie; selecting the composite video source in the SlingPlayer application showed the player output, although it had no support for IR remote control of the portable player.

[caption id="attachment_331" align="aligncenter" width="201" caption="Playback of a DVD through the Slingbox Solo using composite video."]movie screen[/caption]

Of course, since analog TV is essentially no longer available (maybe some low-power local stations), people with old analog devices need to use a digital-to-analog converter box to view over-the-air broadcasts. I dug out one of my converter boxes and connected the composite and audio from the converter to the Slingbox Solo inputs and attached the IR data blasters near the pick-up sensor and an old rabbit ear antenna was connected to the converter.

Using the SlingPlayer to view the output, I manually configured the converter box to scan for HD channels. Once configured to display the local stations, I was able to capture some sample video using both the SlingPlayer and through the web browser access via the sling.com web site. When I tried to view this remotely, I found a problem - the converter box has a time-out feature that turns it off if you don't change channels or otherwise provide some periodic activity.

The converter box is not one of the devices immediately supported by the Sling software; information on customizing a remote control is described in the Sling User Forums, and many custom device files have been created by users with hardware necessary to "capture" the IR remote control code sequences in a usable data format. Locating a custom driver file from the manufacturer of the converter box took some searching, and was not for my specific model. Once I got it properly installed however, it works fine and allows me to turn the box on and off, change channels, etc. through the Sling applications.

[caption id="attachment_333" align="aligncenter" width="252" caption="The browser add-in application allows you to control and view your media over the Internet, by logging into the sling.com web site."]streaming media[/caption]


[caption id="attachment_332" align="aligncenter" width="205" caption="The SlingPlayer is designed for configuring and local area network access to your Slingbox."]streaming media example[/caption]

[caption id="attachment_334" align="aligncenter" width="240" caption="On the Macintosh side, the SlingPlayer allows the user to setup and view streaming media over your local network."]streaming media[/caption]

[caption id="attachment_335" align="aligncenter" width="240" caption="The browser add-in does have one OS limitation, requiring OS X 10.5 or higher to run."]media interface[/caption]


mobile streaming mediamobile streaming media

[caption id="attachment_338" align="aligncenter" width="220" caption="Sling Media also has mobile phone applications for iPhone, iPod touch, Windows Mobile, Blackberry, Symbian, and classic Palm OS devices. You can try the application free for the first 30 days, after that, you must purchase a registration code for $29.99 to continue using the player."]streaming media[/caption]

A software-only solution can be found at www.orb.com. Orb installs a client on your home XP or Vista Media Center system (that's necessary for the live TV feature) and then, like sling.com, uses a browser login to their site to link you with your home system over the Internet. In addition to live TV, you can access media already stored on the home system, including, pictures, documents, audio files, video, etc. There is even a file browser feature that lets you explore drives and folders and download files to your remote.

If you have a data-blaster device integrated in your Media Center system or as an option to your tuner card, then you would have the same remote control capability as a Slingbox. In many cases (not all) Orb can control your Media Center tuner directly, allowing you to view live TV or remotely schedule or start the system recording a show.

If Media Center is running, Orb can give you the ability to terminate the application to take control of the tuner. Control and playback is managed through an Internet browser connection and then launches and streams media directly to Windows Media Player or Real Player. Orb recently added iPhone to the supported device list with the OrbLive today application ($9.99 in the App Store).

streaming mediastreaming media

[caption id="attachment_341" align="aligncenter" width="157" caption="Orb allows you to navigate your media through a browser window, and then view live TV or play media remotely through a supported player on the device."]streaming media[/caption]

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