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Musing again on a media player

Monday, June 21st, 2021 at 10:11 pm

A long time ago I wrote a couple of times about different methods of playing media on my television, it looks like I never posted about the solution, which ended up being to use PS3 Media Server (now known as Universal Media Server) with all transcoding turned off, not via writing a custom FUSE filesystem to alter file extensions, but by finding the right configuration option.

As well as working nicely for my television I also picked up a cheap Android tablet and used a UPnP/DNLA app and VLC to be able to play the media on that as well. That tablet started to show its age so I picked up a newer one, at which point I found the UPnP/DNLA app didn’t exist anymore, but fortunately the ability to browse is now built directly in to VLC for Android.

It also turned out that I don’t often watch things on my television, instead playing them on my second monitor in my study, so I wasn’t that concerned when I noticed that media using newer codecs wouldn’t play on my television. This is now an eleven year old television that hasn’t had a firmware update in a long time, so I started looking in to media players again, and not just for me, but also for my parents.

Chromecast

About two years ago I picked up a basic Chromecast to try. It was quite easy to set up and worked exactly as described. However after some hands on experience I found that it wasn’t suitable. If you want to stream from somewhere else it is great, but the lack of control while playing (my deal breaker for a WDTV Live) and that you can’t just use it to find something to start playing is a problem.

It did come in handy for the first few months of lockdown last year when a couple of podcasts livestreamed episodes each week. The player is browser based but supports casting so I could get it started from my PC and then go relax on the couch.

I did try using my phone to control the Chromecast, but I wanted to use a traditional remote control and look at the television screen, not at the touchscreen in my hand.

Kodi on a Raspberry Pi

I find it interesting that as much as things change they also stay the same as ten years ago one thing I was considering was XBMC, well these days it is called Kodi and late last year I loaded that (using LibreELEC onto an old Raspberry Pi. This worked astonishingly well with it getting commands from the television over HDMI-CEC and importantly it being able to play the newer codecs.

Unfortunately there was a glaring issue, the Model B+ that I was using was not powerful enough to smoothly play those newer codecs. As I had proven the concept I ordered a Pi 3 B+ (at the time the only place I could find with reasonable postage didn’t have stock of Pi 4 models) which resolved that issue.

After a few months of using it every so often I was finding it ok for my purposes as a UPnP/DNLA browser and player, but I was unhappy with:

  • The odd way that Kodi would browse the UPnP share, it would display them all with a year of 1969 (aka zero in unix epoch) and put everything in alphabetical order, not folders at the top like is typical.
  • No way to power off the Pi, you can shut it down but it can’t wake up, to do that you need to power cycle it. Not what I wanted for something I might use a couple of times a month where I wanted the convenience of everything through my existing universal remote control.
  • It took me a while to work out what the controls were, which wasn’t helped by being limited to the set of commands my television would send over HDMI-CEC, and it seemed a bit laggy.

Chromecast with Google TV

While the Pi with Kodi was working fine for my occasional needs, a bit over a month ago I cam across something talking about the newer Chromecast, not the one that I already had, but the “Chromecast with Google TV” which looked like quite a nice Android device for a very good price, so I picked one up.

Like my previous Chromecast (which I still have in the cupboard) it was quite easy to set this one up, the remote control was nice and responsive and it didn’t take me long to install VLC and browse my media. As I used it I started to dislike it more and more…

  • You can’t get rid of the ads. Even though I uninstalled the included apps and switched to the app only mode, the minimal I could get the home screen down to was three ads and the icon to start VLC
  • You can’t configure overscan. I understand that on newer televisions you can turn off overscan on HDMI inputs, but not on mine and the Chromecast doesn’t have any configuration (like there is with Kodi) so I was stuck with missing edges. Not that noticeable when watching a movie, but when the menus are chopped off…
  • Google Assistant. I’m not comfortable with a microphone under the control of Google, it should only activate when you press the button and I was pleased to find that app only mode should disable it, but I was still uneasy
  • Remote control. While the bluetooth remote is nice and responsive, it isn’t that comfortable to hold and I couldn’t get it to reliably turn off my television by HDMI-CEC or IR. Being bluetooth I couldn’t use my existing universal remote, and I don’t fancy spending $$$ on replacing that with a hub type remote.
  • Signed in to Google. Unfortunately this is expected these days, but you have to be signed in for it to work, it can’t operate as a standalone media player
  • Wifi. While the wifi is convenient, I have wired ethernet at my television, so it would be good to be able to use that. Yes I know you can buy an official wired adapter or go the USB-C dongle route…
  • VLC for Android needs more work. I understand that this version of VLC is still new, but it was too glitchy (eg would jump when scrolling through a list of files, or jump to an odd place when returning from playing a video) for me to use as an (almost) out of the box solution

Returning to Kodi on the Pi

The more I was using it the more I realised that I preferred running Kodi on the Pi as I didn’t need to be signed in, I could just plug it into the wired ethernet at my television. So made sure to return the Chromecast within 30 days for a change of mind refund. The one feature that I will not have with Kodi is the ability to cast a livestream, but I do still have the older Chromecast…

Once I had Kodi running again I started to look into the issues I had with browsing over UPnP. I quickly learned that the recommendation is to simply not use UPnP, to instead share over the network using HTTP, NFS or SMB… Ah, why was I fixated on UPnP? I am constantly accessing the storage on my Linux box from Windows via SMB, how did I not think of using that? And yes it is the right option, the ordering is what you expect, I get file sizes, it even gives preview thumbnails and video resolution/codec information.

So now my remaining issue was the convenience of powering the Pi on and off, there are lots of open source projects based around a Pi, surely someone has designed something I could build? I was also aware that I could add an IR receiver directly to the Pi, that might be better than relying on HDMI-CEC for control.

I was kicking myself again as it didn’t take me long to find the RemotePi Board, an infrared remote controlled power switch for the Raspberry Pi that will work with LibreELEC/Kodi and also give me an IR receiver to control Kodi.

At half the price of the Pi itself there are people I know that would consider this too expensive, but for a ready made solution it is perfect for me so I placed an order. As the pricing was in EUR I assumed it was coming from in Europe, instead they are based in Thailand (it does say this on the ordering/shipping page) and it took three weeks to get here, yay for inconsistencies of international shipping!

The good news is that the RemotePi arrived today and I wasted no time in installing it on the Pi, following the instructions to add the startup/shutdown scripts, telling it to enable the IR receiver for an MCE remote control and then reconfiguring my universal remote control to know about a MCE device.

It is already so much more convenient. I can pick up the remote and select the “Kodi” activity which will turn on the television and the Pi, It takes about 20 seconds to fully boot and I can then browse to a video to watch. Once I am done I can then hit the off button and the remote will turn off the television and tell the Pi to shutdown. Very nice!

but what about…

It would be remiss of me if I did not mention that during all of this there are other media players that I looked up. There are a bunch of cheap Android TV based devices, there are the Amazon Fire ones, there is the Nvidia Shield, there is the Apple TV, etc… Some of these are quite expensive, some are reported to be of poor quality and some are biased towards particular services. For me there is something that feels right about opting for an open source solution, not just that it does what I want for the least money…

My final note is that earlier I mentioned my parents who have a (newer than mine) Samsung TV with apps for ABC iView, SBS on Demand and some others. These apps have been painful in getting updates in the past, so I can imagine at some point I will recommend they they get the Chromecast with Google TV as that does seem to fit their use case quite well.

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Has it really been a year?

Tuesday, March 16th, 2021 at 10:34 pm

Today marks a full year from the first day that I started working from home. Like many others I have spoken to, my sense of time is broken. While I have definitely settled into a routine it still seems like it is only new and temporary, even the last six months don’t seem like they have existed.

Our office has reopened, but with reduced capacity, spaced out eating and no use of the meeting rooms or lunch area. A couple of people are going in once or twice a week, but most of us don’t see the point of the commute just to work by yourself.

The Comedy Festival starts next week and while I haven’t booked in as many shows as I would have in the past, I’ve got a lot booked. It will be strange to be working from home and then heading into the city most nights of the week…

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The end of twenty seven metres

Thursday, January 7th, 2021 at 7:14 pm

How long does it take me to use up twenty seven metres of photo paper? Four and a half years.

At least that is the interval between buying the roll of paper and when I am at the end of the roll, with enough for two more prints. Over that time my usage has changed. After the couple of large prints I was making two prints a month (only ten months of the year) for camera club competitions. Then the club comp dropped down to one print per member per month, and then in 2020 we had to drop the print competition.

So what made me get to the end of the roll now instead of early last year, because I have been entering international competitions. I usually only enter digital competitions, but I need to get acceptances from Australian competitions, there aren’t many of those and a big one closing soon is a print competition.

So, after not printing anything for ten months, last night I printed out twenty images:

I had a couple of failed prints so I am glad that when I realised I was at the end of the roll that it wasn’t quite the end.

This all means that it is time to buy some new paper, with a big question being do I want to get another roll, or should I go back to sheets?

The main advantage of the roll is that I have the option of making quite large prints, but a big disadvantage of the roll is that the paper has a curl. If I cut a piece off and want to print with it immediately I need to roll it back on itself to remove the curl, otherwise it doesn’t feed through the printer right and at the start/end it rises up and gets marks on it. This is usually ok as it is outside the image I am printing which is then covered by the matt board, but it would be good to avoid this. (My printer is 13″ wide so doesn’t support the 17″ wide roll, as I am feeding it in 90° to the curl that is part of the issue, if it was fed in normally that would be ok)

If I had planned it out better I would have known I was getting near the end of the roll and saving the last few metres in case I wanted to make large prints, then buying normal sheets for most of my use.

Getting another roll does work out cheaper and if I plan ahead I can cut a bunch of sheets and let them lay flat for a while to remove the curl, though right now I am not able to make the decision as both rolls and boxes of A3+ sheets are out of stock at the local places I know of, so I will have to wait…

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A study in panorama

Friday, January 1st, 2021 at 2:44 pm

Every couple of years I clean behind my desk. I don’t do it more often as this task involves taking everything off the desk, unplugging everything and disassembling the desk. Once clean I then have to put it all back together, all up this takes a number of hours so is generally done when I have time off around the new year.

Previously I have taken a photo of the tidy desk, but this time I attempted to capture most of the room in a panorama:

Study in panorama (Lightroom)

I spent about an hour just on taking the photos for this, camera on tripod, in portrait with my homemade L bracket, and using my widest lens. Each set is eight or nine images and I took around five sets until getting a set I was happy with. I initially considered capturing the full 360°, but that was more difficult to get aligned so I settled on around 280°, skipping the cupboard and room doors.

The above panorama was merged in Lightroom with the built in tool, but if you look at the large image you can quickly find a number of alignment issues. Look along shelves, picture frames, the cornice, etc. A proper panoramic tripod head would have helped, but I don’t have one of those.

I had a try at using Photoshop to do the merge, it essentially gives the same results but with each source image as a layer so you can fine tune where the joins are and then re-merge for exposure. At least that is what I picked up from reading some tutorials, I don’t know how to do that because I rarely use Photoshop.

Thinking back at how I have made panoramas in the past I realised that I wanted to be able to go to a misaligned part and be able to fine tune that section so they were aligned. Something like I remember doing in the Canon PhotoStitch software, but that was 20 years ago and while I do happen to have the install for that, it doesn’t want to run under Windows 10.

Another program that have used is the Microsoft Image Composite Editor which I recalled was an amazing tool, but it was last updated five years ago. I gave it a try anyway, no better than Lightroom and also no fine tuning ability.

It was getting late, so thought that the Lightroom merge was good enough so I uploaded it to Flickr and wasn’t going to spend anymore time on it. Until today when I decided to see what had happened to another tool I remembered: Hugin

Back in 2011 on a road trip from Melbourne to Perth and back I played around a fair bit with Hugin. What I remember of it was that it could give good results, but it was also prone to crashing. I don’t know when I last used it because I don’t do panoramas that often and the one in Lightroom has been good enough when I do make a panorama. Upon finding that it was still an active project and that it had a release only a few weeks ago meant that I had to give it a try:

Study in panorama (Hugin)

I was impressed. While I saw the options to fine tune control points and other things, the above panorama was made using the simple settings and it has come out a lot better than Lightroom or Photoshop. All the big issues I saw before are fixed, with only a couple remaining on the lower right that could be fixed by a small amount of cloning.

However it is nowhere near as convenient as selecting the images in Lightroom and clicking Photo Merge > Panorama. Instead I exported full size versions as TIFF, loaded those into Hugin, generated the panorama, copied the result into the directory for Lightroom to see. I also took the final image into Photoshop for some content aware fill of floorboards in the corners and tweaked some levels before exporting the final JPEG for Flickr.

I don’t know if I will use Lightroom or Hugin for my next panorama, but it is good to know that suitable alternatives exist.

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The middle mouse button

Sunday, December 27th, 2020 at 3:19 pm

My computer mouse of choice is the Microsoft IntelliMouse Optical 1.1A:

I don’t recall when I first started using this mouse, but it was a long long time ago with a white version in 2006 and then black versions from 2008 on. I have tried some other mice, but kept returning to this one. I prefer it so much that at some point I picked up a few of them (new old stock) as spares.

Over the years these have been very reliable for me, typically the fault being with the scroll wheel which is rectified by disassembling the mouse and giving the whole thing a clean. Having the spares meant that I could swap out the mouse immediately, then clean it later.

There has been one fault that a clean doesn’t resolve: when the middle button stops working.

Some people I know don’t think this is a problem, but I use the middle button a lot (second only to the left button) so for me it is a big deal. For example in a web browser to open a link in a new tab do I ctrl/command-click or do I right click and select “open in new tab”? No, I simply middle click on the link…

Good thing I have those spare mice as my first action was to grab one of those from the cupboard. Still doesn’t work. It it is software issue with Windows? Reboot, still doesn’t work. Grab my work Macbook, still doesn’t work. How about Linux? Doesn’t work there either. What about a different spare mouse? Ah…

I then tested the other spare mice and found that it was only those two (the one I had been using and the first spare I tried) that didn’t have a working middle button. Time to open one of them up to see if I could see anything obvious like dirt wedged in the button, nope it all looked good. Having two mice out of action would mean I would be down to one spare and replacements at this time are quite expensive.

While I had the mouse apart I noticed that the switch for the middle button appeared to be the same as the switches for the side buttons, the side buttons that I never use, so what if I unsoldered the switches and swapped them around? It took longer to get the soldering iron set up and find my solder wick, but I was able to restore middle button functionality.

Repeating the procedure on the other broken mouse meant that these two mice are now in the cupboard as spares, not being thrown away.

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