Updating the software on a Humax PVR

A couple of weeks before Christmas, my wife expressed an interest in getting “on of those video recorder things” (and she didn’t mean a VHS recorder) as only I could work the Mac hooked up to the TV with BBC iPlayer on it (and anyway, iPlayer can be a little unreliable at times).  Realising that this was effectively a green light to purchase a gadget, I suggested that, if we were to get a personal video recorder (PVR), then Christmas would be the time when we would get a lot of use from it and I began to research the options.

We use digital terrestrial TV (Freeview) after an earlier attempt to use FreeSat became unreliable, and I knew that the Humax PVRs boxes were the ones to go for so, after a little crowdsourcing on Twitter, some Googling for reviews (like the one from Radio and Telly) and a shufti at the Which reviews, I decided to purchase a Humax PVR-9300T (the 320GB model was £169 at John Lewis although the price has since risen – other retailers may have been less expensive but I called the store to check/reserve stock and collected it within an hour or so of purchase).  Basically, this gives me two Freeview tuners so I can record on two channels and watch a third (as long as it’s on the same multiplex as one of the two that are recording) or play back something from the hard drive.

After two weeks of using it, I have to say that the 9300T has been great and I can’t believe we waited so long with a broken VCR and iPlayer.  Sure, the UI could be spruced up, but it seems to be functional and, most importantly, it’s easy for consumers to navigate (my wife is no technophobe but complexity is not good when you’re rushed off your feet with two small children and you just want to record/watch something on the telly); however I was disappointed to find that it locked up occasionally, requiring a power reset and sometimes resulting in missed recordings.

Checking the software version in the system status, I found that my PVR was running an old release (UPTTF 1.00.15 Dec 17 2008) and that Humax had released an update (UPTTF 1.00.18 Nov 12 2009) which includes a resolution to an intermittent lockup issue.  Over the air (OTA) updates didn’t work for me – as the Digital TV Group’s engineering channel was not playing the Humax updates at the time so I downloaded the update from the Humax website, along with Humax’s download tool (WDN4OAK+).  I also needed to find an RS232C (9 pin female-female) null modem cable to transfer the software to the PVR and a laptop computer with a serial port (I could have purchased a USB to RS232 converter) as well as an operating system that would run the Humax download tool (the installer is a 16-bit application so it failed on Windows 7 but ran OK on XP).  Armed with the necessary hardware and software I then:

  1. Connected the RS232C cable to the PVR and the serial port (normally COM1) on the PC
  2. Installed and ran the Humax download tool (WDN4OAK+)
  3. Selected the software update – in this case it was apps(UPTTF_10018)_LDR(a4_37).hdf
  4. Clicked Download
  5. At this point, nothing happened (except that the downloader will wait for a request!) until I powered on/off the PVR to start the update process.  I didn’t think this was particularly clear in Humax’s instructions, which is why I’m repeating the steps here).
  6. Waited for the PVR to update (it’s important not to interrupt power at this point – to either the PC or the PVR) – a progress bar is displayed on the PC, and the PVR display will show END when it is complete.
  7. Power cycled the PVR once the update had completed and closed the download tool on the PC.

Ever since I applied the update (which was over a week ago now) the PVR-9300T has seemed to be more reliable (no more lock-ups) although I have to say that this process is probably far from simple for less tech-savvy users (but full marks to Humax for making the necessary software available for download).

Microsoft and Sky launch Sky Player on Windows 7

In my post earlier this evening about the Windows 7 launch, I mentioned new content providers in Windows Media Center and that was one of the other big announcements today – Sky and Microsoft announced the addition of Sky Player, Sky’s online TV service, to Windows Media Center in Windows 7, creating a new and exciting way to watch live and on-demand TV from Sky on a PC.

In a few days time (27 October), Sky Player will also be available on the Xbox 360 and, whilst it can also be accessed from other platforms, the integration into Microsoft’s media offerings is part of Microsoft’s multi-screen entertainment strategy which will bring a wide range of live and on-demand entertainment programmes to the Windows platform.

The service will give Windows 7 users access live and on-demand pay TV currently available via Sky Player, including movies, sports, entertainment, children’s programming, music, arts and documentaries.

Sky Player in Windows Media Center on Windows 7

For existing Sky TV customers, Sky Player in Windows 7 provides an alternative to their set top box in order to view their Sky TV. For new customers, Sky Player in Windows 7 will offer a wide range of live channels and on-demand content via a number of monthly subscription packages.

According to the press release:

“Windows 7 enables audiences with a broadband Internet connection to watch TV from Sky on a PC. In addition to offering digital music, photos and personal videos all in one place, Windows 7 makes it easier to discover great TV, sports and movies from Sky straight from the PC desktop, via a new desktop gadget. Users can also browse programme galleries or search for shows using keywords.”

Ashley Highfield, Managing Director and Vice President Consumer and Online at Microsoft UK (formerly of both the BBC and Project Kangaroo), commented:

“The way UK consumers interact with TV is changing. Audiences now want to consume great quality TV anywhere and at any time and are demanding a lot more from their TV experience. With the launch of Windows 7 and through partners such as Sky, we are making new things possible and delivering TV to British viewers the way they want it”

Sky recommends a 2Mbps broadband connection and when asked if the content was high definition, Sky’s Director of OnDemand, Griff Parry, said that the company is looking to improve the service over time but for now the focus is on great quality standard definition programming.

Maybe one day we’ll see the BBC’s iPlayer integrated in a similar manner – I certainly hope so!

A state of calm returns to the Wilson household as the CBeebies TV signal is restored

A few years ago, I wrote about getting free to air digital TV from Sky. At that time, FreeSat was a relatively unknown service and I was trying to avoid the cost of an aerial upgrade (antenna for those of you reading this outside the UK) but, at the end of last week, my Sky box developed an intermittent sound problem and became unwatchable (on top of the frequent need to reboot before it will pick up Channel 4), leaving us with two poorly children and no CBeebies!

For most people, CBeebies is of no significance but is you have children between 2 and 5 (I have two that age), it may be considered vital! Luckily, I have my Mac Mini hooked up to the TV, so I streamed CBeebies directly from the web for Saturday’s early morning shift but, as the rest of the street woke up and went online, we saw more and more buffering and it’s hard to explain to little people why their favourite CBeebies programmes keep on stopping!

It was clear that I needed to do something about the TV signal. Digit AlAs part of the UK’s digital switchover, analogue TV is due to be switched off in my region in 2011 and the signal has already deteriorated to the point that it’s virtually unwatchable so digital is the only real choice. I could get another satellite decoder but, a little while back, the existing one was automatically upgraded to use Sky’s auto standby functionality (great if you’re looking to save power, not great if you’ve set the video to record from the satellite signal and meanwhile the Sky box goes into standby…) so we decided to bite the bullet and switch to digital terrestrial (Freeview). I picked up a nice little Philips DTR220/05 set top box from John Lewis and the (extremely easy) setup meant that within minutes I had it set up to pick up almost every channel, except those in multiplex B. After a bit of googling I found that’s because the local TV transmitter (Sandy Heath) transmits this signal on channel 67 – right at the edge of the frequency range, and the existing (loft mounted) aerial wasn’t up to the job (not really surprising as, even though I live on the top of a hill, the signal has to pass through three brick/block walls and an electricity substation).

So, this morning, the my local aerial installation company visited to fit a nice new digital TV aerial to my chimney stack, after which the CBeebies TV signal was restored (along with several other channels of less significance). And, because there are a few channel differences between FreeSat from Sky and FreeView, I can even watch Dave now (which I’m sure will not impress Mrs. W)!

The BBC’s iPlayer finally catches up

The BBC’s iPlayer TV and radio catch up service is great in many ways but it only runs on XP and has a ridiculously short period before the DRM kicks in and snatches a programme away from your computer. Now things are taking a step forward and, over the Christmas period, I’ve been using a beta of the BBC’s new cross-platform iPlayer Desktop.

No longer limiting itself to a single platform and an old version of Windows, the BBC has dropped Microsoft’s Windows Media DRM in favour of an Adobe Integrated Runtime (AIR) application and H.264. For those who are not familiar with this technology:

  • H.264 is a video encoding algorithm intended to providing good video quality at substantially lower bit rates than previous standards and is used by Apple iTunes, YouTube and other prominent content distribution platforms.
  • AIR is Adobe’s platform for writing rich Internet applications that can run on the desktop. Basically, AIR is the opposite to Microsoft Silverlight (which takes the .NET Framework into a browser) and it can bring Flash, Flex, HTML or AJAX to the desktop, further blurring the lines between web and desktop applications.

Because AIR is supported on so many platforms, the new iPlayer system requirements list Linux (Fedora Core 8, Ubuntu 7.10, Open Suse 10.3); Mac (Intel only); Windows XP and Windows Vista as supported operating systems. Although they are not listed in the system requirements, it should also run on other platforms that are not listed – for example other Linux distributions and Windows 7.

The application itself seems straightforward enough – if you’ve seen the previous iPlayer Download Manager then the new iPlayer Desktop will be instantly familiar. As should be expected with a beta application though, there are still some issues to iron out: all three machines that I installed the application on set the allocated hard disk space to something ridiculously small; but, critically, if your computer is connected to a low-resolution screen (say, on a netbook, or a standard definition television), then parts of the interface (like the tabs to switch between downloads, now playing and settings) are not accessible – as shown in the screen shot below (a VNC connection to the Mac Mini that I have hooked up to my old Sony TV):

iPlayer Desktop too big for the display

Sadly I’m not aware of any changes to the content restrictions that mean programmes are only available for a (very) limited number of days after broadcast (I imagine that, just as the Windows Media DRM was easily circumvented, the DRM on this new platform will be cracked too). But there is some light at the end of the tunnel – the AIR-based system may just be a stepping stone in the development of the BBC’s content delivery platform – at Microsoft’s 2008 Professional Developers’ Conference, the Head of Online Media for BBC iPlayer, Anthony Rhodes, spoke of moving from an Internet catchup (broadcast 1.0) service to a model where the Internet replaces television (broadcast 2.0) using Live Mesh and a local Silverlight application to share content between users and across devices.

So, how can you get the new iPlayer Desktop? Simply agree to be a BBC iPlayer Labs tester and then download a programme from the iPlayer website. At this point you should be prompted to install the iPlayer Desktop (and Adobe AIR) – just follow the prompts and within a few minutes you should be in business.

After testing the new platform on my systems over Christmas, the iPlayer Desktop seems like a major step forward to me. If you run Linux, Mac OS X, or a modern version of Windows (and if you have a UK-based IP address), then it’s definitely worth a look.

When Apple’s connectors don’t connect

A couple of weeks back I wrote about Apple’s lack of clarity over delivery times when ordering a new computer. Well, my MacBook finally arrived yesterday (and like it very much) but tonight, I got ready to hook it up to the TV using a combination of my Apple Mini-DV to DVI and DVI to Video adapters only to find that the “spade” on the male DVI connector on one adapter is is too large to fit the female DVI connector on the other! Arghhh! I also have the same problem if I try to connect it to a DVI to VGA connector.

These are all Apple products (i.e. it’s not as it I’m trying to use a combination of cheap components to cut corners) but it seems that I need to buy a third connector – a Mini-DV to Video connector – for the rare occasions when I want to watch digital video content on my aging 32″ TV.

Thank you Apple – for yet another example of the fabled Apple design taking precedence over practicality. As a friend pointed out to me, Apple probably doesn’t want me using two connectors together as it will spoil the aesthetic effect. Shouldn’t that be my choice?

Freeing digital downloads from the shackles of the BBC iPlayer

I’ve written before about my concerns with the BBC iPlayer but nevertheless, it is the only legal way to download BBC programming to my computer that I am aware of. Since I wrote that post, iPlayer has been improved to include streaming content for unsupported platforms but that doesn’t allow for offline viewing (catching up on TV episodes on the train, for example).

Well, there is a workaround and, as I figure that I am a BBC licence fee-payer and the content has been downloaded legally, converting it to watch it on another device is at least morally acceptable – even if the BBC may not agree. After all, it’s not as if I’m sharing the resulting files with other people. Based on my initial tests, it seems to work well – at least with the version of Windows Media Player that my iPlayer machine is using (v11.0.5721.5230).

All it involves is taking one copy of Windows XP, with a working BBC iPlayer installation, and running a couple of utilities to identify the keys to the Windows Media Player and remove the DRM from the .WMV files that make up the iPlayer content (by default, this is held at %allusersprofile%\Documents\My Deliveries\iplayer_live). The resulting file(s) should play in Windows Media Player without DRM restrictions – and, critically, will also play back on Windows Vista or MacOS X (using the Windows Media Components for QuickTime).

Why I will be remastering my childrens’ DVDs

There’s been much discussion of the UK’s archaic copyright laws as I’ve questioned the need for DRM and written about ripping DVDs and converting between multimedia formats. I’ve also criticised the BBC for it’s substandard iPlayer service (even if it does now stream content it still doesn’t allow offline playback on all platforms and, when it does, the DRM on the offline content is overly-restrictive). Well, here’s another example of DRM madness brought to me by the BBC – this time it’s a menu system on a legally purchased DVD.

My children don’t watch a lot of television, but there is one programme, In The Night Garden…, that is almost guaranteed to attract my three-year-old’s attention for a full 30 minutes (believe me, that is an achievement) and also provides a fair amount of delight for my one-year-old (I have to confess that I enjoy it too). It’s a very gentle programme, perfect for a spot of post-lunchtime relaxation, or for winding down before stories and bed. So, there we were, trying to calm down an overtired and slightly poorly little boy who was desperate to see Igglepiggle in the Night Garden and who doesn’t understand the idea of a TV schedule, when we decided that the DVD we had bought the boys for Christmas would be better used right away (and at least give us the chance to prepare a meal for the little people before a sleep).

On went the TV and the DVD player, in went the disc, I pressed the play button and was greeted with 2 and a quarter minutes of loud, high energy trailers for other childrens’ programming from the BBC. I tried to skip the trailers and to go straight to the menu but all attempts were greeted with a message that said “operation currently prohibited by the disc”. Now I can understand making me watch the legal notices, but forcing me to watch the trailers (on a DVD intended for children) is wrong. So I will be ripping the programmes from that DVD and re-recording them to disc without the menus, trailers, or anything else. In effect, BBC Worldwide is forcing me to break the copyright on a DVD that I have legally purchased – just to avoid the advertising.

I would complain to BBC Worldwide, but they only publish a postal address (no e-mail) for contact, so I can’t be bothered. And writing to Points of View won’t help either! In the meantime, I’ll leave my complaint on the Internet for any other prospective childrens’ DVD purchasers to consider…

Recipe for (a few minutes of) peace and quiet on a Saturday morning…

Picture the situation… it’s early in the morning, you’re in a hotel room en route to a holiday destination, were travelling until late at night, had a bad night’s sleep and your 3 year-old son wakes up his 1 year-old brother, in the process forcing the whole family to start their day.

Here’s a recipe that I recommend:

  1. MaplinTake one iPod with Video, loaded with Thomas the Tank Engine (or other suitable Childrens’ TV) MP4s, one Apple iPod AV cable and a phono to SCART adapter from Maplin.
  2. Plug the iPod into the hotel room TV using the cable (and adapter, if necessary), turn on the television and select the AV channel.
  3. Play selected MP4s from the iPod to the children whilst consuming a suitable caffeinated beverage in an attempt to regain some sense of normality.
  4. Start your day in a slightly better mood.

I knew there was a reason I’d spent so much time getting my iPod working with the TV a week or so back! I believe that my wife’s exact word was “inspired”.

(Just before someone calls the social services, I should point out that my children get lots of one on one attention and babysitting by TV is only used in extreme circumstances!)

Connecting iPod with Video to the TV

A few weeks back, I was given an iPod with Video. It’s a huge step up from the iPod Mini that I had before – not least because of it’s video capabilities (which mean that I can store a few films on the iPod for playback in hotels/planes/trains etc. but I’ve been struggling to get it to output a decent signal to my TV. Apple sells an iPod AV cable to take the 3.5mm headphone socket output to red/yellow/white RCA (phono) sockets but I have a perfectly good cable that came with my Sony video camera so I wanted to avoid spending £15 on the Apple cable. After trying the well-publicised hack for using a normal cable with the connections swapped around I had a picture, but no matter how I tried it was always black and white (ironically I could get some faded colours with NTSC, even though my TV is PAL!).

Then last night I was in Tesco, where I visited the “Apple Store” (note the quotes as the Tesco Apple Store is not a patch on the real thing) and picked up the Apple iPod AV cable. Not only is is a much better quality product (the cables may not be as good as the Cambridge Audio interconnects that I use for my audio-visual equipment but they are a lot better than the thin black leads supplied as standard with most equipment) but it cured my black and white issues – I can now watch films (and video podcasts) in colour without the hassle of connecting a computer to the TV.

BBC iPlayer: seems to work well on Windows XP but what about the rest of us?

A few weeks back, I started to listen to one of my favourite podcasts – BBC Radio 4’s The Now Show, only to be greeted with:

“We’re sorry that The Now Show podcast isn’t available for this series. The podcast was part of a trial, which has now come to an end; however you can still listen to the programme for seven days after broadcast, via the Radio 4 website.”

The clip then continued by advertising other BBC Radio 4 podcasts – obviously not “part of a trial which has now come to an end”. This annoys me tremendously – the BBC is a fine broadcaster but as as it dumbs down its main news programmes and airs more and more tabloid TV (leave that to ITV please), I’m not sure that my license fee is being well spent (that’s how the BBC is funded – from the sale of it’s programmes, and from a mandatory annual fee for all UK households and businesses with a device that’s capable of receiving a TV signal – even if it only receives subscription services like satellite or cable TV). You see, the BBC has spent millions developing a new service called iPlayer (it’s a pity they couldn’t have spent a few more pounds registering the iplayer.com domain) which will allow registered users (as long as they have a UK-registered IP address) to download programmes from the Internet. On the face of it, that sounds good, except that it’s been bogged down by DRM and that’s limited the availability of the service.

A few months back, Microsoft UK’s James O’Neill and I were engaged in an online (and face-to-face) debate about the need (or not) for digital rights management (DRM). James’ argument is that content providers have a right to protect their copyrighted material, that Windows Media codecs are available or Mac users and that Linux users would never allow a Microsoft product (i.e. a Linux port of Windows Media Player) on their system. My argument is that piracy would be insignificant if an easy to use digital media system could be created which works regardless of the device and operating system and with media at a price for which people would be happy to pay without a moment’s thought – that Microsoft Windows Media, Apple FairPlay and competing technologies should be made to work together – just as Mark James proposes in his call for open standards in digital rights management. Instead, the BBC (following the path set by a rival broadcaster, Channel 4) have provided a service which will only work on a subset of Windows PCs.

I recently saw a trailer for a BBC series called Mountain which was advertised as “coming soon” but I missed the first couple of episodes. Realising this, I thought that this would be an opportunity to try out the iPlayer service but if I’m going to give up the comfort of my living room to watch TV on the computer, I want to do it with my computer that’s hooked up to a decent display – that will be the Mac then. Not with iPlayer – it’s Windows only (so much for the accessibility which BBC services should maintain). Not to worry, I have a decent Windows PC too… oops, that runs Vista… iPlayer only works with Windows XP, Windows Media Player 10 and Internet Explorer 6 (or later) with JavaScript, ActiveX and cookies enabled. Now, looking at the statistics for this site, Windows XP users only account for about 60% of my visitors (even if they prefer to use another browser, they will have IE6 installed). Sure, my readers are highly technical (and hence more likely to try something other than the norm) but so will those who are interested in watching TV across the Internet – at least in 2007 (I expect things to change over the next couple of years) – so the BBC has instantly excluded 40% of it’s potential audience (even more if their IP addresses don’t appear to be served from the UK). Furthermore, for a service that was supposed to have launched a fortnight ago, it’s still carrying a beta label and signup is a painfully slow process. In fact a BBC representative wrote on an iPlayer support forum:

“We have chosen initially not to market or publish widely the availability of the service as we wanted to see what the initial demand would be – and interest so far has been extremely strong.”

Hmm… I read a press release announcing that the service would be launched on 27th July 2007 (which was subsequently picked up by many newspapers and websites) – I think that is both marketing and publishing the availability of the service. So what’s all this beta nonsense about then? It seems that the BBC’s Press Office is not talking to the BBC’s iPlayer people…

Once I set up a Windows XP PC and got my login details for the iPlayer service (after a wait of several hours… suggesting a level of manual intervention in the process), I found that they didn’t do much for me. The BBC’s own advice is to save the iPlayer login on the computer (if I’ve saved my login details in a cookie, what’s the point in having a login?) and then before I could download any content I had to register for a separate bbc.co.uk account (which seems to require more personal details than I would like to give away). At least that was an immediate process (even if the first few usernames I tried were taken) and I was finally able to download my programme.

BBC iPlayer - downloading

Download speeds were good (in the region of 2Mbps), although the reference to the number of sources from which I was downloading alerted me to that fact that this is a peer-to-peer service (the BBC uses VeriSign’s Kontiki delivery management system) – in which case am I giving up some of my bandwidth for the BBC to distribute its content to others? (Oh the irony of a DRM-protected service using P2P for distribution!) More to the point, what effect will that have on my bandwidth usage if I’m limited by my ISP, or if they implement network controls to limit access to the service?

The BBC website had given me the impression (obviously misguided) that programmes would be available for download up to 7 days after broadcast and then to view for a further 30 days. Apparently that’s not so, as the 30 day clock seems to start ticking at broadcast time (not download time), so my programme actually had 23 days left for me to watch it. BBC iPlayer - expiry Furthermore, it seems that once I start to watch a programme I only have 7 days to watch it before it expires. Those timescales seem pretty tight (there are no such limits with other time shifting technologies, whether I use a simple video cassette recorder or something more complex) and it’s this inflexibility that makes me so critical of DRM.

The content itself is pretty good quality – at least the episode of Click that I used to test the service (not to be confused with the streamed version available from the BBC website) looked fine in full screen mode on a standard 1024×768 laptop display although, somewhat annoyingly, a BBC News 24 ticker was visible on the bottom of the screen throughout the programme (that shouldn’t be a problem for most programmes). Also, despite advertising itself as a 30-minute programme, this particular episode turned out to be the short (just under 12 minute) version. Actually, once you find a PC that meets the iPlayer specifications, the service is pretty good. I just think that the BBC should cast it’s net a little further and include Macintosh and Linux users in its online audience.