Monday, December 13, 2010


"I think complexity is mostly sort of crummy stuff that is there because it's too expensive to change the interface."

--Jaron Lanier
Roughly translated, the computer geek who uttered these words is saying that things would be simple except for it's too much of a pain to go back and simplify them.

Or, you know you're in the internet age, when you go to hook up a new gadget to your television and you discover you don't have any more ethernet ports.

What I found behind my television
I bought a media player gadget, one of these things you can use to watch Netflix movies over the internet and play Youtube videos on your big screen TV. There are a few different devices out there, I ended up with a Western Digital WDTV Live Plus.

It's pretty cool, and it basically works. Though I am still fairly baffled that coming up on a decade after the Tivo hit the scene, these things still seem fairly immature. That is, I have been able to use my Series II Tivo as a "media player" for years now. I can put video in a folder on my PC, and the Tivo can play it. It's not without it's issues - the major one being that the hardware itself does not have HD output because it's so old.

Compared to the Tivo, the WDTV is: small, cheap, has HD, has no hard disk. It works with Netflix, which is a major reason we got it. But I also wanted something to be a better media player than the Tivo.

Even though the video quality is far better, stunningly, it has some basic shortcomings that the venerable Tivo does not.

First, it plays very badly with Windows. You are supposed to be able to just share a folder and it can pull files from there and play them on your TV. I could not get it to work at all. And I'm a computer guy. I read all sorts of crap in the support forums, and apparently it's not an uncommon problem. But despite discussions about it going back more than a year, I couldn't get it fixed.

So I moved on to the next option - set up a media server on my computer. Well, this is more or less how the Tivo works, so that didn't seem like a total defeat. After some brief research I tried a commercial product called PlayOn that seems fairly well established. It mostly works.

But again, compared to the Tivo, there are some surprising shortcomings.

  • No "replay" feature,which sends you back about 8 seconds.
  • Fast forward/rewind are slow-reacting. It's not highly stable - if I try to fast-forward for any period of time, it craps out and goes back to the menu. Sometimes you can start playing again from where you left off. Sometimes not.
  • No automatic indexing. Why wouldn't the media server, or the media player, have some basic functionality that lets you skip forward 5 or 10 minutes at a time?

Tivo Series II: Still Running
At the end of the day, for a hundred bucks, it's hard to be too disappointed. Of course, I will have to pay 80 bucks for PlayOn (unless I can find a free media server). Then I will probably have to upgrade my desktop computer, for a thousand bucks, since it's barely adequate to run a media server. Then I will have to upgrade my network infrastructure, since my wireless G network isn't fast or reliable enough to...


It's a nice simple device to play media. It's smaller than a paperback book. It's has HD, and two USB 2.0 ports. It's dead simple to play Netflix and Youtube videos.

The Tivo worked with the limits of people's networks ten years ago. They were slow and unreliable. The Tivo server software transcoded the video to the necessary format in the background, on the PC, before it was needed, so it worked on slow machines. It would download videos to your set-top box in the background, because your network might not be fast enough to play them in real time. It was failure-resistant, if you tried to fast forward (or just play) past the end of what could be served in real time, it would just stop and tell you that, and you waited for a few seconds.

The WDTV seems to be designed around the notion that your network is as reliable as the postal service. It does not do well with a slow server or internet connection. It doesn't buffer much, it doesn't handle problems well. Basically, it fails to give me easy access to media on my home network, with all it's warts and old technology, in the way that Tivo didn't.

Is it simpler? In some ways, yes. It just doesn't work as well.

The march of progress seems to mean that we no longer design devices to work around the shortcomings of the infrastructure. If only the infrastructure was good enough that such a design made sense.

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