When it comes to watching television shows, a lot has changed over the years. For the most part, we’ve had a way of recording shows and watching them later. For a long time, a VCR was our best bet. Now we have PVRs, on demand channels, digital distribution services, and more manual avenues like downloading via BitTorrent or Usenet. Personally, I’ve tried all of the above and settled on the latter – Usenet. While it involves the most effort on my part, the end result is exactly what I’m after. But after mentioning my desire for the ability to add codecs to my Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, I started wondering if there might be a better/easier means of watching the shows I download.
Ruling Out Options
BitTorrent seems like the obvious choice, given that there’s no additional cost. Unfortunately, my ISP (Rogers) throttles BitTorrent traffic something awful, which renders it almost entirely useless. I’ve found grabbing music via BitTorrent is acceptable, but still takes longer than it should. Downloading a 1GB+ TV show episode would take a couple days, at best. The season premiere episode of Battlestar Galactica had over 3000 people seeding it, and I managed to connect to 2 of them, which resulted in an embarrassing 6kbps transfer.
When I bought my first HDTV, the first thing I did after setting it up was trade in my old cable box for an HD PVR. This seemed like a great option, not only for myself, but for Hannah as well. She’s always missing shows she likes while she’s doing homework, or eating dinner, etc. This gave her a chance to schedule some shows to record and watch at a later date. Unfortunately, the hardware was less than stellar and proved to be more of a source of frustration than anything else. Scheduled recordings were regularly missed, the last couple minutes of certain shows chopped off, and managing recorded shows couldn’t have been more tedious. I’m not sure if I lasted the month before trading the PVR in for a standard HD cable box.
On Demand Cable Services
Our cable TV provider (Rogers) offers their own On Demand channel, as well as The Movie Network On Demand, and a few other specialty channels. Aside having a horrible out-dated and terribly slow interface, the service is completely unreliable. At peak times, it will crash, stall, or be unavailable all together. On rare occasions where I’ve been able to get a show or movie to actually play, I’ve experienced problems such as audio cutting out momentarily or all together, or not being able to resume after pausing. Not to mention, there is still a great deal of content that’s not available in HD, despite it airing in HD initially.
iTunes via Apple TV
When Apple announced TV shows finally coming to iTunes Canada, I couldn’t have been more excited. That was, until I saw the line-up of supported channels and shows. Even now, a year after its introduction, there isn’t a single show I would pay to watch. The iTunes movie service is much better, but with rentals only being made available a month after their release, there isn’t much of a reason to consider it. To be able to watch content downloaded via iTunes, I would need to pick up an Apple TV, or buy the necessary cables to hook Deanna’s MacBook up to the entertainment system.
Xbox Live Marketplace
Xbox Live Marketplace now offers movies in Canada, but no TV shows. I already own the hardware and the service is fantastic – very fast downloads, you can start watching after only a few minutes of downloading, and the quality is great. Problem being – it’s the most expensive of the bunch. With HD movie rentals coming in at over $9, I would much rather drive out to the video store and pay under $6 for the same movie on Blu-ray. But again, there are no TV shows here, which is the main concern.
Why not just watch TV shows when the air like normal people?
- Commercial breaks are out of hand in some shows (LOST, I’m looking at you), and completely dampen the experience.
- Some shows run over their time slot (LOST, you son of a bitch!) which means you miss the beginning of another show if it happens to air directly after.
- With having children in the house (and a baby to boot), it’s really hard to plan times for Deanna and I to both sit down and watch. Normally, we’re not able to until after 9pm and some shows air earlier.
- Still no way of obtaining episodes if we happen to miss them, for whatever reason.
- Being in Canada, we’re behind in the times on many levels. There are still a number of shows that don’t air in HD here. Battlestar Galactica is a good example. Since it airs in HD on other channels in the US, we get a letter-boxed version within the 4:3 frame of our 16:9 TV = gross.
I don’t really have any major beefs with the steps I take to bring TV episodes to my living room television. While there are quite a few of them, the end result is exactly what I’m after – HD quality episodes that I can watch at my leisure. What I’m doing now, is this…
- Download recent episodes via Usenet. I subscribe to Giganews, which costs me $12.95 per month which allows up to 35GB worth of downloads. Given that most episodes at 720p weigh in between 1.1GB and 1.6GB, that allows for a fair amount of downloading each month. Best of all, download speeds are maintained at 1mbps to 1.4mbps, so it really doesn’t take long to download a single episode.
- Unpacking and repairing files. A single-click process which takes a couple minutes, at most.
- Rename and move unpacked file.
- Re-encode file via Visual Hub. MKV seems to be the codec of choice for high definition video, which looks fantastic, but is limited as far as where you can play the files. Obviously, my desktop iMac has no problems, but my Xbox 360 and PS3 don’t support MKV, and as such, I’m left with having to re-encode. Cooking an AVI from the MKV takes about half an hour and is a very CPU intensive process.
- Transfer file to USB thumbdrive. Streaming HD files over a wireless network just isn’t feasible. Even from my N compatible iMac to my wired Xbox 360 – the result is a choppy file that ends up stopping to buffer every few minutes. Moving files via USB thumbdrive has proved to be the easiest and quickest way to get files from my iMac to the consoles in the living room.
- Watch file on console via USB thumbdrive. For a while, I was moving and copying several files to the PS3’s harddrive, but that just proved to be an extra unnecessary step. Watching the files straight from the thumbdrive works just fine.
What Are My Options?
I’m looking for suggestions here. I know there are many devices similar to Apple TV, that allow you to stream video files of many formats over a wireless network, or transfer files directly to the device. I would love something like this where I didn’t have to convert the MKV files and could transfer files to the HDD over the network. I would like more than anything to make use of the hardware I already have, but I realize that’s likely not an option if I’m looking to cut down on steps without sacrificing quality or flexibility. Here are a few requirements I have if I were to get a new device, and some that need to be met for my current setup.
- I have an Intel iMac and MacBook in the house, both running Leopard. No Windows machines.
- Wireless N compatible network. The router is actually in the living room very close the entertainment system, so wired connection is do-able.
- New device should have on-board harddrive of 160GB or more. Preferably very large (500GB+) or ability to upgrade.
- Supports MKV file format, or allows for installation of new codecs.
- Network connectivity which allows transferring files directly to the device.
So, what do you think? What are you doing to get TV shows from your download queue to your television?