Monday, March 2, 2015

If only Chromecast and Roku would meet in the middle...

So I got a Chromecast for Xmas. Actually I got two, funny how that works. Since I've been traveling for work I haven't got the chance to try either of them out until recently.  I was curious about getting a Roku stick too, but now I don't know.  The problem is (according to my research, anyway) there's a big functionality gap between the Chromecast and the Roku and neither one are a perfect solution.

First let's look at the Roku.  It's a concept many people are familiar with, a set-top media player, shrunken down into a self-contained HDMI stick, powered by USB.  It can play almost anything but avi files.  It can run apps (it calls them "channels"), it has a dedicated remote control and you can also control it with Android or iPhone apps.  Using it you can play files from over the internet or from your home network on your television.

The Chromecast is also an HDMI stick.  It has no remote control.  You can't load any apps on it.  What you can do is load apps onto your Android phone or Chrome browser that will let you stream content to your television from either of those devices.  It's very cool and it solves many permissions issues.  No network share or media server required, just play the file locally in a Chromecast compatible player and send it to your TV.

Except, here's the problem:  Chromecast doesn't support mkv files (or avi files). Why I don't know.  You see, if I transcode a DVD or Blu-Ray to play on another device it's going to be contained as a mkv.  It's not even for ideological reasons, it's for functional reasons. I rip with all audio and subtitle tracks left alone, and mkv supports the most number of tracks.  It would be silly to use mp4 only to switch to mkv on those few files that need it.

Anyway, this makes the Roku stick a more obvious choice, but then we lose the convenience of simply "casting" media.  For a Roku stick, I'd need to have a way to make whatever file I wished to view available over the network.  Either a media streamer or a file server.

I will admit, the Chromecast was a bit hard to wrap my head around at first, seeing as how you can't put any apps on it, it's essentially a leech that requires a phone or PC to serve as host.  The Roku is app-enabled media box, but you can't send a file to it on the spur of the moment, you have to copy it to a server or share it on your network.

I can set up a workaround, setting up a media server that transcodes my mkvs on-the-fly to something the Chromecast can use, but that kind of defeats the purpose, right?  I mean, might as well get a Roku stick then.  Also, I'm not sure how I'd play them on my Chromecast.  Play the transcoded stream off the server via my phone and then forward that stream to the Chromecast?  Since the Chromecast doesn't have a remote or apps I can't send it directly to the media server to fetch the video, it still needs an intermediary device.  Yeah, it's not as clean and simple as it could be, is it?

I would buy one of the new Raspberry Pi 2 B models and use it for a media server. I mean it's pretty much capable of acting as a desktop computer, and it costs the same price as a Chromeast (bit bigger and bulkier though).  That means I could also set it up as a new file server and retire the laptop. Unfortunately it just came out a month ago and is hard to get hands on.  But honestly, since I've already got a file server running it wouldn't be too big of a bother to just copy video files to before I play them...  Of course, audio over HDMI doesn't work, but I do have some nice-ish speakers and a sub I could plug in.  Maybe buy one of those Logitech K400s with the trackpad on the side.

You know what, running all this through my head, I see a simpler solution.  Maybe I'll move my file server (an old laptop) to my tv, plug it in via HDMI. I can copy videos to it when I need to and play it from there, no transcoding required.  There, does everything always have to be so hard? Of course, it's a PC so HDMI audio will be spotty, I do have decent speakers and a sub I can run it to though.

Of course looking at Amazon there are PI 2s available in kits.  So pay $25 extra, get a case (which I would have wanted) a PSU, and an HDMI cable.  Then I could mothball my old laptop again and just use the PI for all my serving and media playing needs.  I'll think on it.

Til then,


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