Jez Higgins

Freelance software generalist
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Wednesday 01 May 2013 The Forest Road Reader, No 39

After banging on about I'd been driving my TV from a cheapo Android tablet and how TVs should be coming with Android installed, I went out and bought a DVR. Downloading light murder mysteries is all very well, but it takes an age and you're never quite sure what the video quality will be like, and what-not. A box that can sit in the corner and quietly capture broadcast quality murder mysteries simply by sucking them out of the air seemed like a handy thing. So I bought one.

It should absolutely be running Android too.

A DVR - digital video recorder, aka a PVR, a personal video recorder, aka TiVo, Sky+, etc, etc is, by modern standards a pretty straightforward bit of equipment. Team up a big fat harddrive - 320Gb is considered on the small side, 1Tb seems to be the standard - with a FreeView tuner or two and tie it together with a bit of software. Most seem to be net enabled - the one I bought has WiFi. On powering up, it ran through the quick scan to find the TV channels, hooked into the WiFi, downloaded a software update and was ready to go.

I'm pretty pleased with the box I bought - a Philips of some description. The WiFi connection is excellent - the room it's in is on the edge of my coverage at the moment, and it can stream HD video without problems. Other devices in the same room struggle with that. It has two tuners, so if they're a murderathon on I can record two things at the same time. It's pretty easy to tell it to record every episode of Murder, She Wrote it can find. It's got a DLNA client so it can stream audio and video from the server upstairs. It does iPlayer, YouTube, and Netflix if you want. It also does, oddly I think and I haven't tried them, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace(!), and Skype, although I assume you'd have to rig up some kind of camera and microphone for that. And it wasn't wildly expensive. You could put something like this together yourself, but not for the price.

But the user interface is a right old pig's ear. Each piece appears to have a different heritage, has different conventions, different typefaces even. Some bits have a very flat presentation, some parts are all bezelled and 3D looking. The TV guide highlights by changing the background colour, the timer (I think it is) highlights by outlining. It's all over the shop. The iPlayer client, for instance, is pretty excellent. You can easily browse by channel, date, or category. The search function is straightforward and works well even though you're typing text with a remote control. When you want to watch something, it plays it. Yay! The YouTube client, on the other hand, is really quite painful to use. Searching is cumbersome, and the way you enter text is completely different from iPlayer. Watching a video full screen involves a succession of additional key presses, each accompanied by a loud ding. The DLNA works like a charm, right up until you want to play a video in a format it doesn't recognise. Which is often. It also seems to determine format by file extension, which is just crap.

All of this could have been done away with by replacing whatever OS its running with something based on Android. I haven't had the covers off, but I'm willing to bet it's running an ARM processor. Philips could provide a new skin and some custom apps for recording, tv guide, and so on and then leave the rest to the existing Android ecosystem. Happy with iPlayer, but would like ITVPlayer too? Just install it. Want to stream outrageous media formats like gasp ogg vorbis audio or mkv video? Just install MoboPlayer - there isn't a video I've thrown at that thing that it hasn't played. NetFlix - install it. Twitter - install it. Some service which isn't part of small Philips selection - Clubcard TV, maybe, perhaps your email, or even just normal webbrowsing on what is obviously quite a capable device for webbrowsing except for that fact that I don't think it has a webbrowser. Whatever - you could install it. Want your TV to display all your appointments for the day while you're parked on the sofa eating your cornflakes. You could, and it'd be much more comfortable and convenient that trying to use your laptop or tablet at the breakfast table.

Operating all that off a remote control would be a bit of a pain in the arse, but the DVR could provide its own virtual keyboard. That would at least make things consistent across all apps. For next to no cost, they could even bung in Bluetooth so you could hook up a wireless keyboard and trackball (which, as a sensible manufacturer they'd also supply with it). Then you'd be laughing.

I guess what I'm really asking is for the manufacturers to acknowledge that what they're selling us is a computer - a normal general purpose computer - that happens to have a bit of special purpose hardware attached, rather a specialised piece of kit that happens as part of it's operation to use a computer except we pretend it isn't there. I don't think that's an unreasonable request. Some of the computer peripheral manufacturers have caught onto this - particular the home NAS manufacturers - and benefitted from it in all kinds of ways. The TV and DVR people could too.


Tagged android


Jez Higgins

Freelance software generalist
software created
extended or repaired

Older posts are available in the archive or through tags.

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My code on GitHub

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About