RasPlex — Plex on a Raspberry Pi

rasplex

Simply put, RasPlex lets you turn your TV into a Smart TV. Similar to the AppleTV, but completely free and open source, RasPlex is basically a set-top box. Once RasPlex is stable, it will have support for legacy console game emulation (NES, SNES, etc), as well as Plex Channels (Netflix, Crackle, Youtube, etc).

In due time you’ll even be able to order a preconfigured Raspberry Pi with a nice VESA mountable case from the site.

RasPlex →

On the LG ST600 Smart TV Upgrader

At home I have a pretty neat media center setup if I say so myself. The core of the whole setup is a Mac Mini running Plex, which indexes all media that I have. To watch any media I either use Plex.app on the Mac Mini itself (or Plex.app on any other Mac in my network), any of my iOS devices, or my LG Smart TV (a 42LV5500) with the medialink app on it.


My media center setup: Plex Media Server + a plethora of connected devices.

Not that familiar with Plex? Or not sure what the difference between Plex Media Server.app and Plex.app is? Then read the Plex/Nine introductory post first.

Earlier this week I bought an LG ST600 to expand that list of connected devices. The idea behind the ST600 is great: upgrade any “dumb” TV to a Smart TV by attaching the ST600 (via HDMI) to it. Above that the ST600 comes with the medialink app, which allows communication with the Plex Media Server. Geek as I am I got really excited when the box arrived and immediately got it out to start playing with it.


The LG ST600

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The ST600

The ST600 is a tad bigger than the AppleTV (v3) but weighs less. It comes with the bare essential ports: Wired Network (RJ45), HDMI Output, Digital Audio Output, and a Power Supply Connector on the back. On the side you’ll find a USB port.

In the box you’ll find the ST600 itself, a remote, a power adapter and some Nero MediaHome which is a DLNA server (yet I’m not using that as I use Plex as the media server software). Plug in the power, connect it to your TV and you’re good to go. Wired network is optional as the device has built-in WiFi support.

First impressions

Once booted (which takes about 30 seconds) I was presented with a rather familiar screen: the LG Smart TV interface just like the one on my 42LV5500. However, it did look a bit dated and not so appealing as it comes with empty tiles.


The empty-ish home screen (after having set up the WiFi)

As one has to do with all media devices nowadays I first set up the WiFi and looked for updates. Using the remote to enter the WiFi pass didn’t go that smooth really. Although the system is the same as on the 42LV5500 the (quite chubby) remote that comes with the ST600 is the lacking factor: pressing any of the arrow keys and holding it will only fire a pressed command once. This means that one has to click 5 times to go 5 characters in the same direction. On the 42LV5500 you can just press and hold the buttons.


Setting up the WiFi on an LG Smart TV

After having updated the device to firmware version ST.8.79.192.F I finally started playing around with. Navigating the menus felt slow to be honest. Above that it didn’t take all clicks, which can be quite frustrating when having to navigate down 10 items (which requires 10 presses on the down button).

Hmmz, not convinced by now really. But no worries, I bought the thing to communicate with Plex. A slow navigation won’t stop me from enjoying my media on any old screen I have lying around.

Cannot play the media

Having started the medialink app I again touched familiar grounds: quickly I navigated towards a 720p rip (H.264 video codec, .mkv container) which plays fine on my 42LV5500.


The medialink interface

Choosing it popped an error on screen however: “Cannot play the media”. Choosing older rips (ripped at other rates (480p, 1080p), using various codecs (XviD, DivX) and various containers (.avi, .mp4, .mkv)) all resulted in the same error: “Cannot play the media”. Sigh.

I immediately though of a connectivity issue, so I connected the device over a wired connection yet that didn’t solve the problem. Goofing around with the ST600 and eventually navigating to my Plex Media Server via DLNA (a new feature in the latest version of Plex Media Server) I got some media playing that way, yet most of them still popped the “Cannot play the media” error.


“Cannot play the media” makes me a sad panda

With a Google Search Coupon in my hand I started searching. Looks like I wasn’t the only one having these issues. Eventually I found a suggested solution on the Plex Forums: update the ST600’s firmware with a beta version (version ST.9.79.901) that should fixes a few medialink problems (and disables some DLNA features to give medialink more resources). As the update isn’t available online yet, it’s just a matter of downloading the version, putting it on a USB stick and popping in the running ST600 which will prompt if you want to install it. As said, as done.

One restart later I was back at it. Navigating to medialink and re-selecting that first movie I wanted to watch I got it working. Yes! Finally! On to some other media my disappointment in the device was growing again: some media played, some didn’t. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it really: one episode of a TV show played one, while the other (same codec, same container, same bitrate) failed.

With the media that did play, the ST600 still wasn’t all bells and whistles really: Again the remote again responded slowly (if I press pause I want the movie paused, not 2 seconds later) and sometimes it just couldn’t handle the HD media (buffering issues).


It’s like going back in time…

The verdict

It’s no surprise that the ST600 doesn’t do it for me: the device is slow and doesn’t do as advertised. Really a shame, as the 42LV5500 — with the same Smart TV engine and medialink app — does evertything perfectly.

It looks like LG didn’t give the device enough power (CPU, RAM) and that it released it way too soon, or didn’t test things properly.


Emperor says no.

Sorry LG, but I shipped this one back to the store where I bought it from …

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What now?

I bought the LG to watch Plex media via the Plex interface. I could use any DLNA compatible device, yet I like browsing it via the usual Plex way (a requirement to me, so the Boxee Box for example won’t do it for me). Still sitting on my hunger I looked for other solutions.

One solution that looked appealing was to buy an LG Blu-Ray player, like the BP620 with Smart TV capabilities. The device itself cost only a bit more than the ST600 and I get a Blu-Ray player with it (which I don’t own yet). A few Google Search Coupons later I shelved that idea, as it turns out that the medialink app doesn’t come with the Blu-Ray players 🙁

This week someone suggested the Roku 2 to me, which has a Plex app. It’s something that indefinitely will require some testing, yet I haven’t found a distributor in Belgium (and I don’t feel like coughing up border-taxes which can’t be recovered if I were to dislike and send back the device). I’ll keep it in the back of my mind, yet I’ll search for other solutions first.


The Roku 2

One possible solution could come from Apple: As I have an AppleTV (v3) lying around (which I’m not convinced of either by the way: no extra features over my 42LV5500), and it is rumored that Apple will open up development of apps for it from next week on, my hope is in Apple’s hands for now. An official Plex for AppleTV App would be exactly the thing I need. And I know that the AppleTV is a fast device, and that the Plex for iOS apps play all media fine … so I’m sure it’ll be a hit.

Right now I’m awaiting next week’s WWDC announcement. If that won’t turn out, I guess I’ll start looking for a Roku or maybe use some of my students to build me a standalone device.

AirPlay TV

Joe Hewitt, on the future of the Apple TV:

I’ve been reading a lot of speculation recently about what a future Apple TV might look like. Not nearly enough of these analyses have talked about AirPlay. It’s clear to me that AirPlay would be so important to the Apple TV, you might as well call it AirPlay TV.

The mentioned AirPlay functionality can be seen in this video (skip to 1:42 to see the real potential of this):

That’s right, AirPlay lets you (wirelessly!) connect your iPad with your Apple TV and stream video/graphics from the former to the latter. Joe speculates that the next Apple TV will be set up like this: omit all the set-top boxes you have and stream from your iPad — which becomes a device to navigate through the offered content — to your Apple TV.

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As demonstrated in the video above, this also allows you to use the iPad as a controller when playing a game on the iPad.

The first time I’ve seen such a likewise setup, albeit between an iPhone and an iPad, was in the game The Incident. If you have the game running on both devices, you can use the iPhone as a controller for the iPad.

Additionally, if you’d then hook your iPad via a cable to your TV (possible because The Incident supports TV out): BOOM, instant game console 🙂

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As you might know, I’m a fan of Plex, the Media Center Solution of my choice. When I applauded the technological setup of Plex/Nine, I mentioned Plex for iOS which lets you stream data from your Plex Media Server (PMS, no pun intended) powered Mac (or Windows Computer) to your iPhone/iPad.

Plex for iOS also gives you the option to play the selected video on the device running the PMS … which brings us back to the AirPlay situation: use your iOS device as a remote to control what you see on your TV.

Above that LG Smart TVs also play nice with Plex: if you have such a TV — which I do happen to own — you can stream data from your PMS powered device to your LG Smart TV. And yes, it just works (TM). Full HD. No hassles. No Stuttering. But you do have to own an LG Smart TV, or an LG Smart TV Upgrader … which in essence is something like the described AirPlay TV as it’s a small box that you hook to your TV which can then talk your Plex Media Server.


LG Smart TV Upgrader

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Connecting the dots: Yes, I think Joe is spot on with his analysis, as we’re already using the techniques described (your TV itself as a consumer, handheld device as a controller) today: use device A to play something from device B onto device C.

Above that I’m now even more curious to where that cryptic Plex blog post of yesterday is pointing to … could it be that Plex will play nice with this future Apple TV device? Or might we expect Plex 10 (on November 10, which would make sense)? Or will it be a new Plex for iOS version that allows you to command your LG Smart TV such as the AirPlay feature allows one to do? And oh, then there’s this icon posted on Dribble for a new Plex feature:

Yeah, the inner geek in me is running overdrive right now.

Airplay TV →

On Plex/Nine

About two months ago Plex/Nine, the most awesome Mac Media Center solution for OS X out there, was released. The release was an entire overhaul of the Plex/Eight code and basically had — featurewise — nothing new to offer (heck, even some stuff that worked before didn’t work anymore!). However, this release got me very, very excited.

Continue reading “On Plex/Nine”