Product review: Pinnacle Showcenter

So, a while ago I came across an interesting little device called
Showcenter,
from Pinnacle. It’s a A/V appliance (same size as a typical standalone
DVD player) that plays various kinds of media (primarily MP3 music and
MPEG 1/2/4 video) from your home media server. It exists in a wireless
version as well, but since I have a small apartement and don’t mind a
bit of cable strewn about, I opted for the wired version.

I’ve now played with the device for a few weeks, and I’m mostly
happy with it. I’ve tried various forms of HTPC boxes running Freevo/MythTV, but never became happy with
them. Maybe because they were based on PC boxes (noisy fans, failing
hardware, complicated remote control setups), but maybe more because
they were so open ended. With a PC and free software you can
practically make the box do anything, as long as you’re willing to put
some time in. There’s always some aspect of the system that can be
improved.

While that’s fun, at the end of the day I spent way more time
tinkering with the system than actually playing media on it. I briefly
thought about building a cheap Mini-ITX box and running something like
KnoppMyth on
it, but the Showcenter is just simpler (and cheaper as
well). Sometimes the lack of extensibility can be a good thing.

Of course, the device has it’s problems. Mainly, the system seems
to be built for people that have maybe 50 albums in MP3 form and maybe
a movie or three to play. The application running on the PC that
serves the content over the network have serious problems handling my
media collection (~15000 MP3 files, and several hundred TV series
episodes). Furthermore, it’s based on the concept that you ”import”
the media into the app, relies on ID3 tags being correct, and limits
video file browsing to a single level of folders (eg. if you have a
folder named ”Scrubs/Season.1” and another named ”Friends/Season.1”,
they will both show up as the genre(!) ”Season.1”. Look, I have all my
content nicely sorted in folders, just let me browse the file
structure, OK?

Interestingly enough, all communication between the PC server and
the device is over HTTP (on a non-standard port), and the entire user
interface is built with HTML. This opens up some very interesting
possibilities:

The interface can be replaced. There exists no less than three open
source replacements: OpenShowCenter,
Oxyl~Box
and Swisscenter, all built
with Apache, PHP and MySQL, and running on both Linux or Windows. I’ve
only tested SwissCenter, but it works great, and lets you navigate
your existing folder structure. It has several other nice features
(album art viewer and incremental search are my favorites), and it can
even update itself over the web. It does have one annoying bug, in
that the video list view only shows the part of the filename up to the
first ”.”, so that if you have two files, eg
”lost.s01e02.hdtv-lol.avi” and ”lost.s01e03.hdtv-lol.avi”, there’s no
way of telling them apart from within the UI. I keep the original
software running as a backup for that, which of course is possible
since they’re web servers. Just run them on different ports.

The other possibility this entails is that the server doesn’t
neccessarily need to be on your own home network. If you have a friend
with another Showcenter and a decent broadband connection, you can
play each others media collections. High-res video might be a problem
unless they have less than 1 mbit/s upstream, but it should work well
for MP3’s at least. I intent to try that out as soon as I convince any
of my friends to go out and get a device of their own. As far as I can
tell, this is legal under Swedish
copyright law
(the ”privatkopiering” exemption).

must… watch… more… TV

So, the ”Book
Group
” DVD actually did appear before the holidays, but I have not sat down and
seen it yet. And to further pile opon the stuff of things that needs to be seen, the
first season of 24 is on sale, like everywhere
for around 200 SEK. I never saw it when it aired, which I’m kinda glad about now,
because it seems like the kind of show that lends itself nicely to 18-hour viewing
marathons. It’s going to be fun…

Speaking of marathons, my training for this summers marathon goes on, and I’ve already
started to feel pain in my ankles. Today I switched the treadmill run for a elliptical
trainer session. Since I don’t know what running 35 mins at 10.5 km/h would correspond
to on that machine’s setting, I erred on the tougher side. After about 15 minutes
I realised my mistake, but couldn’t admit that to myself, so I went on. Kinda exhausting,
but I think my newborn stubbornness is a vital quality for a would-be marathon runner.