What's the best solution for streaming HD media from a PC?
November 29, 2008 11:08 AM   Subscribe

What's the best solution for streaming HD media from a PC?

I just got my first HDTV. For a couple years, I've been using an XBox Media Center with a wireless adapter to watch downloaded video from my WinXP PC in the other room. XBMC, however, lacks the power for HD video.

What's the best, reasonably priced solution in 2008?

I do have Netflix, and Netflix "Play Now" would be neat, but isn't a requisite. I play video games sometimes, and that would be nice, but again, not required. BluRay, same deal. What is important is that it work really well, not require a lot of hacking on my part, and that it play all the stuff I download -- DivX, Xvid, MPEG, etc. I am not opposed to something with an HD I can easily access over my network, but I don't want any sneakernet. I'd rather spend $150 than $300 or $400, but I'd consider the latter if it was something really kickass.

These questions have some sorta answers, but they're also a year old. What's the latest and greatest?
posted by YoungAmerican to Computers & Internet (19 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Not to hijack -- but some OSX people might read this and find this answer helps them: Connect360 is flawless and does everything you ask, only for OSX. Best $20 I've spent this year.
posted by nitsuj at 11:25 AM on November 29, 2008

Best answer: Actually, I would seriously recommend an Xbox 360. It does Netflix "Play Now" (thousands of movies, a few hundred of which are "HD"), handles WMVHD, Xvid, Divx, MPEG and you can even download HD movies from Xbox Live. Also, there are programs you can run on your PC (VLC, Winamp, Transcode 360, Orb, etc.) that will allow you to stream video (SD and HD) to the Xbox 360.

I actually had a HTPC (home theater PC) for a while but ultimately ditched it in favor of an Xbox 360. Only downside is you'll need to invest in a USB thumb drive to load movies onto from your PC (if you don't want to keep them on an external hard drive to stream them to your Xbox) as well as a wireless connector (if you don't run a wired ethernet network). All-in you could buy a used Xbox 360 and get the add-on hardware for $250-$300.
posted by tundro at 11:29 AM on November 29, 2008

PopcornHour A-110 is easily the best of the current generation of this sort of Set Top Box. It'll do everything you're used to doing with XMBC, plus a whole lot more, all in HD.
posted by toxic at 11:41 AM on November 29, 2008

Best answer: To clarify, you're running XBMC on an original xbox? Then it's the xbox that can't decode HD, not the software, and XBMC is available for many platforms now. I just transitioned from the same setup to a 360, and I have to say, if you love the software's openness, customization and it's ability to play anything via samba share then you might be a little disappointed with that move. The 360 is limited in it's support for formats and requires media serving software to be running on the host computer, and most of the current offerings are bloaty and feature-slim. I do like the HDMI and the Netflix play now, but the HD stuff requires an 8Mbps or faster internet connection, which I don't have. I'll probably be building a HTPC soon and putting XBMC on it; it'll be more expensive than a 360 or some of those set-top boxes, but I'll be able to upgrade the hardware and software easily as standards and my needs change.
posted by bizwank at 11:59 AM on November 29, 2008

HP's MediaSmart Connect device might do what you're after...
posted by disillusioned at 1:18 PM on November 29, 2008

XBox360 is probably the best under-the-tv box in terms of bang-for-buck at this point. If you're running XP, TVersity is a free download that runs on your PC and can stream (and transcode where necessary) a wide variety of formats to your XBox360.

I did try a bunch of different programmes recently (both on Windows and Linux) to work with my XBox360, but in the end gave it up in favour of a HTPC - mefi mail me if you want further details.
posted by Nice Guy Mike at 2:16 PM on November 29, 2008

Indeed, the 360's best feature is that it's cheap. At one point my apartment had a Mythbuntu box streaming media from my PC to a TV. Worked great, but kinda loud on the fans. We put together some controllers and emulators for Bomberman and Mario Kart as well.

I moved out, have a 360 now. There's software out there to mimic the braindead uPnP protocol, but it turns out the 360 has a narrow window of supported codecs (I'm not a fan of transcoding). And it's basically no quieter than our original box. Xbox LIVE has video downloads available but basically you have to pay, even for stuff my cable company offers free On Demand.

A pal of mine is working on a HD linux based set top box but I don't know if it'll be available any time soon.
posted by pwnguin at 2:22 PM on November 29, 2008

I have same question exactly, so I'm watching this thread closely. Is it true that you need to subscribe to xbox live to get the Netflix streaming?

Thanks for question!
posted by mtstover at 2:44 PM on November 29, 2008

mtstover: Yes, you need an XBox Live! Gold account ($60/year) to use the Netflix features.
posted by ellF at 4:03 PM on November 29, 2008

I tried using my xbox 360 to play my movies and tv shows, but found that too many didn't play. I was using tversity and as far as I could tell, had it correctly setup. Still, I'd say half the files wouldn't play. The ones that did looked great though. Especially planet earth in 720p. Netflix is great on the 360 also. The only problem I've run into with that is some slow connections during peak hours.

So I'm back to plugging in my macbook pro whenever I want to watch something. In fact I'm typing on tv right now. I have looked into the popcorn hour and it looks pretty cool. My only reservation is that I hear the gui isn't super great. I really like the 360's gui. I have a hard time putting money into a set top box unless it has a really slick interface. Probably a dumb reason.

Now I'm waiting till January to see if this rumored appletv/mac mini update happens. Might get one of those so I don't have to plugin my laptop all the time.
posted by meta87 at 4:20 PM on November 29, 2008

So I've been down this route. Sorry if it's long winded. I've had (in order)
-Windows XP MCE
-iStar HD (same thing as Popcorn Hour really)
-AppleTV (hacked etc)

I've settled on the AppleTV with XBMC on it. Reasons for the above progression:
-Windows - I hate Microsoft for technical and idealogical reasons. Gave up on MCE the same time I started picking up linux.
-MythTV- was great, but a pain to maintain, and as it's main purpose was recording HD, and there wasn't an easy method of that, I gave up on it (recording HD that is).
-iStar HD - very nice for the price/features.. but a bit kludgy. Navigating menus was slow. Hit stop in the middle of a movie, it'd hang for what seemed like weeks. Played HD well enough, and quiet (no hard drive). Interface is weak, wife-acceptance-factor is lower than AppleTV/XBMC.
-AppleTV - streams from iTunes, so I organize all my music/playlists on a vm running iTunes. I can't find an open source setup that will let me do that, unless i don't understand Firefly well enough. Pictures i can browse through using the AppleTV app, or XBMC. XBMC on Mac/AppleTV runs as well as it does on the original Xbox hardware, and to me, it's top notch. For HD, the AppleTV is a bit limited, from a software standpoint, all formats/resolutions play, but it seems the AppleTV hardware isn't up to snuff to play some HD formats/framerates, and I have frames dropped/sketchy motion. I just tried playing a BluRay rip mkv file (720p x264) and it was not so good, but I have some other HD content that works fine (720p of varying formats).

Xbox 360 and the PS3 are advancing quickly in this arena, and if I didn't buy the AppleTV a while back, I would probably look into one of the consoles.
(spam warning - mefi-mail me if anyone is interested in buying a used iStarHD)
posted by bxg at 8:50 PM on November 29, 2008

Response by poster: Is the Xbox 360 significantly better in this department than the PS3? I'm feeling annoyed about having to buy a $100 wireless adapter and pay $60/month for XBox Live to watch the Netflix I already pay for.

Also: have other people had similar experience to meta87, where only about half of the stuff they download plays on the XBox? That seems like an awful success rate.
posted by YoungAmerican at 8:14 AM on November 30, 2008

Well, to chime in again, I don't have a PS3 - so I can't speak much to that point, other than that fact that the PS3 does not currently support Netflix instant play streaming (as far as I'm aware).

With regard to meta87, I haven't had any problems with Xvid/Divx/etc on the 360. I've encoded my own and download a bunch (legal, of course) and never had one video that didn't play. Other nice thing is that the 360 handles AC3 surround sound in avi files...

I do agree with you on the $100 for the wifi adapter and Xbox Live Gold fees. However, the PS3 is $100 more than the 360... you don't have to do wifi (or you can a cheaper wifi bridge). Also, you can get Live Gold for less than $60/year if you shop around.
posted by tundro at 9:02 AM on November 30, 2008

Best answer: It's a very annoying situation, I know - there simply isn't anything as flexible and as value-for-money as the Xbox+XBMC combo at the moment that can also handle HD - I ran one for a good while, very happily, and was annoyed that anything that can handle HD simply isn't as good as XBMC.

I think it comes down whether or not you have any interest in gaming - if you have no interest whatsoever and that won't change, a 360/PS3 probably isn't the way forward. If you might be interested in playing a game now or then, they are very versatile. The PS3 has the advantage of a Blu-ray drive, whereas the 360 has a better selection of games and an (arguably) better online experience - albeit one that you have to pay for.

If you want Netflix HD streaming, it has to be XBox360+Gold membership, as it simply isn't available anywhere else, yet - not even straight from the Netflix site.

As for the network adapter, you can use CAT-5 wired networking, powerline networking or buy a third-party wireless AP/Bridge (I believe) as alternatives to the proper MS adapter.

The trick with a working TVersity setup is, I believe, getting the codecs right on the PC. While the 360 can handle a range of codecs natively (.mkv containers aren't in the list, sadly), the rest have to be transcoded and you need to ensure it's configured correctly (there are a few howtos out there about it - I seem to recall at least one recommending you clean out all your old codecs and start from scratch). Note that the PS3 (and Wii, but that won't handle HD, either) works with TVersity, too.
posted by Nice Guy Mike at 9:38 AM on November 30, 2008

One thing that might have been an issue with my attempts at using tversity on the 360 (noted above) was that I was using Windows 2003 Server x64 on the pc. Might have had better success with XP. As Nice Guy Mike mentioned, I followed a howto on setting up the codecs for tversity and am pretty computer savvy so I think it was setup correctly.
posted by meta87 at 9:38 PM on November 30, 2008

Just to clarify a few things about the Xbox 360. Xbox live is $50/year (or $40/year). Not $60/year or $60 per month as has been stated in this thread.

You only need to pay for Xbox Live if you plan on using NetFlix or playing online. It will stream video from a PC on a local network without an Xbox Live subscription. TVersity works really well for that.

Also, the Xbox 360 UI isn't as useful as XBMC. Why not try an AppleTV with XBMC? You don't get NetFlix, but you get the completely amazing XBMC in a small package with WiFi built in, and a remote.

There may also be some hacks that will get you NetFlix through a PC to your Apple TV.
posted by HC Foo at 2:16 PM on December 1, 2008

yeah, xbox 360 and just have the windows media connect service running. it is the best and cheapest way to get HD media to your tv from your pc. and most of the video you are playing from your pc should be in the divx codec that the 360 already supports. xbox live is like ~$4 a month or 49.99 for 13 months i think when I last re-upped.
posted by Amby72 at 2:22 PM on December 1, 2008

PS3 can't do netflix but it does stream .mkv files over the lan. Even 1080p ones.
posted by valadil at 3:20 PM on December 1, 2008

Response by poster: I ended up with an XBox 360, and am pretty happy with it. I've enjoyed playing some XBox games, too.
posted by YoungAmerican at 1:09 PM on December 31, 2008

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