DDJ Portal Logo Dr. Dobb’s Portal August, 2006
Article on DDJ site

Over the years I’ve spent quite a bit of time and money experimenting with the best ways to implement networked music and video in my home. Back in 2004 I showed you how to build a home video jukebox, albeit with a few compromises. Today you might think the best way to get this done is with a Windows Media Center Edition PC (or perhaps its recent competitor, Front Row). I’d like to offer up an alternative solution that offers a feature set that competes, and in some case beats the PC-based solution for a lot less money: the GalaxyMetalGear TVisto media player.

The TVisto Concept

The TVisto media player is basically nothing but a souped-up hard drive enclosure. GMG was already in the enclosure business when it must have occurred to them that adding a lightweight Linux distribution plus a little more CPU power, a media processor, and a remote-control driven UI would give them a box that could:

  • Play video files encoded in MPEG-2 or DivX formats
  • Display picture files
  • Act as a music jukebox
  • Fill in as a removable hard drive

In other words, do everything that a Windows MCE PC can do with the exception of recording live TV.

GMG sells this box without a hard drive, and with a little shopping you can find it for under $130 – I paid $125 for mine. Add the 5.25″ hard drive of your choice and you are in business. My choice was a 300G Maxtor drive purchased at Fry’s for $80 – making my total investment just a little over a couple hundred dollars. Because this is a simple hard drive enclosure, you also don’t have to worry about a lot of the negatives associated with Media Center PC: no fan noise, small footprint, instant boot time – all big pluses in my book. Once I hooked it up and put it through its paces, I was sold on the value of this as a Media Center Edition replacement.

Setup

The hardware setup for the TVisto is identical to that for any hard drive enclosure: take out a few screws, open the case, connect the power and data cables to the drive, close the box up and you are done. I found the enclosure to be a bit cramped, and I was worried about damaging cables as I forced the drive in, but all went smoothly and that part of the setup took just 10 minutes. If you are comfortable with cracking the case on your PC to install drives or memory this will be a cake walk.

Once you have the drive installed, you connect it to your PC via a USB cable, power it up, and it should quickly appear as a removable drive. You can then format it as an NTFS, Mac OS Extended, or FAT32 drive (yes, this means you can use it with virtually any O/S.)

The next part of the setup gives you a hint about the simplistic nature of the software driving the TVisto. The instructions make it very clear that you have to create the folders shown in the figure below with exactly the correct names: Firmware, Movies, Music, and Pictures. As you will see when using the TVisto, there isn’t a complicated database for music and video like you have with iTunes or Windows Media Player – the TVisto simply browses through folders, and it expects your media to be stored in the folder with the appropriate name.


Figure 1
The mandatory folder layout

Once you have the folders created, copying media from your PC is simply a drag and drop project, copying media files of the appropriate type to the correct folder. As you’ll see later, large collections need to be organized at this point using a system of nested folders, and that is entirely up to you to do.


Figure 2
Copying media files to the TVisto

The TV Connection

After following safe ejection procedures from your PC, you can power down the TVisto and connect it to your TV. The unit ships with all the cables you need for NTSC viewing in stereo, and again, you should have no trouble connecting these standard inputs to your home video system.

One of the really great things about the TVisto was finding out that this little box also supports high quality audio and video. The standard unit ships with support for everything from Composite NTSC video up through 1080i, (although you need to purchase an optional cable for component HDTV connections). It also supports 5.1 audio via an SPDIF connector. Combining these two features means you can watch your stored DVDs without compromising on audio or video quality.

I purchased the add-on component cable so I could get the benefit of higher resolution DVD viewing – am annoying $30 expense, but if you have an HDTV it is well worth it.


Figure 3
The $30 component cable

Once you connect the TVisto to your TV, you may find that the default video settings aren’t correct – this can be remedied by simply cycling through the various possibilities by repeatedly pressing the TV Out button on the remote. Eventually you’ll see the menu shown in Figure 4. (Please note that these are low-res 640×480 screen captures – your HDTV viewing will be much crisper than what you see here.)


Figure 4
The intro menu for the TVisto 3500

A nice, simple interface. The place where you will spend most of your time is in Movies, Music, and Pictures. The only thing I’ve done in the Settings menu is pin down my video output settings, but you also have a few other options, such as Languages, ScreenSaver, and so on.

The three media buttons, Movies, Music, and Pictures, all have what amounts to nothing more than a folder browser interface. You plow through the files that you have loaded in the appropriate folder and select what you want to see, hear, or look at. Once you are in playback mode there are naturally quite a few more options, but the selection process is dead simple.

Movies

Even if you never use the TVisto 3500 for anything but a video jukebox, I think you’ll find that it is worth the money. It supports multiple video formats, but I chose to go with the simplest and easiest format. I used the banned program DVD Decrypter, and told it to rip my DVD to an ISO image. (By the way, if you want a good answer to the question “Is this legal” you might want to see what the Electronic Freedom Foundation has to say about it.) I then simply copied those ISO images to my TVisto in the Movies folder, and was then able to browse them as shown in Figure 5:


Figure 5
Selecting a Movie

As you can see, selecting a movie is done simply by browsing file names, so you will want to be careful about naming your ISO files before installing them on the hard drive. There is no horizontal scrolling, either, so if your names are too long you will be in real trouble – the end of a title will simply be unreadable.

You can also see at the bottom of the list of files that I have put these six DVDs into a separate folder – I’m using a hierarchical storage system to make the navigation process a little easier to follow.

While all this may be a little crude, once you hit the play button the remote in order to start a movie, you will beging enjoing exactly the same playback experience you get from your DVD player – the full set of menus and features you expect:


Figure 6
The Main Menu for Alias, Season 3, Disc 2

Figure 6 shows you a playback in progress, looking just as you would expect at the given resolution, with the English subtitles being overlaid on the screen. (Looks like Sydney is in the middle of a big operation!)


Figure 7
Full Feature playback

I couldn’t be happier with this DVD emulation mode of the TVisto 3500. It does exactly what I want, the way I’m used to doing it. The ripping process is one-button-click simple, and I don’t have to give up anything in terms of features or performance.

Music

I have to confess that I actually purchased the TVisto first as a music player. I like to have access to my entire music collection in my media room, and despite the efforts of all the manufacturers out there, have yet to have a satisfactory experience with a networked player. For example, the Linksys Wireless-B Media Adapter seems like solid product from the spec sheet, but it suffers from such a litany of shortcomings that I found it completely unusable. (Disclosure: I work for Linksys – or at least I did before this article was published.) My Windows Media Center Edition experiences were even more frustrating, again using a Linksys product, the Dual-Band Wireless A/G Media Center Extender (which notably seems to have stopped shipping.) In this case I blame most of the woes on Microsoft, not Linksys, for the unfriendly music experience.

So instead of hassling with a remote box that has to talk to a server, (always including some required server software), the TVisto offers an easier to manage remote experience with less hassle on my part. All I have to do is copy files to my Music Folder, and I’m in business.

Figure 8 shows the music navigation system in place, and just as you might have expected, it is simply a folder browser. This is both a strength and a shortcoming of the TVisto. Since it doesn’t have to maintain a big database of titles, it is much simpler and more reliable. At the same time, that database of titles that you get with iTunes or Windows Media Player does make it easier to navigate through your songs.


Figure 8
Navigating through the music collection

Note that again, in order to bring some help to the navigation problem of working through several hundred CDs, I’ve gone hierarchical, with each family member having their own folder, with artists under those, then albums under those. This is okay, but not optimal. If you want to play a specific CD it means you either have to know whose folder it is in or else spend a lot of time browsing – no search function available.

If your needs are restricted to listening to one CD at a time, you will find yourself in hog heaven. When you select a CD, you can either play individual songs of your selection or with one button press instantly play the entire CD.


Figure 9
Music plaback in progress

The one place where the GalaxyMetalGear team could really afford to work on firmware improvements would be here. Feature competition from Microsoft and Apple has really raised the bar on music playback, and a simple file-folder oraganized MP3 playback experience won’t cut it for a lot of people. Things I’d like to see in updates to the current product would include:

  • Big improvements in navigation, with an eye towards speed – pressing the page button 20 times to get to the end of a list is pretty annoying.
  • Support for playlists, ratings, and searching
  • Support for ID3V2 tags, including multiple Genres per song
  • Shuffle options
  • Display of album artwork and lyrics
  • Visualization options

Despite these missing features, make no mistake about one thing, this is still an excellent replacement for the CD player in your media room. It performs the same function, but allows you to quickly access your entire collection and frees up the space that was occupied by that ugly CD rack you bought at Target 10 years ago.

Pictures

I consider the picture album feature almost a throwaway – it was easy to add, so it was included, but I don’t know anyone who actually uses their TV to browse through their photos (my apologies to those of you out there who do!)

Basically, the photo album feature operates identically to the music feature, meaning you get to view one folder at a time. Figure 10 shows this in play on my TV, and its certainly nice, but the lack of tagging and organization makes it a bit lame compared to a web site like Flickr.com.


Figure 10
Viewing Photos

Conclusions

If you’re looking at price performance, I think the TVisto can’t be beat. I won’t be surprised if an iPod will be able to do all of these things soon (except for playing DVDs you’ve ripped yourself), but even then, the form factor will always mean you are paying a huge penalty for disk space. My $200 TVisto has 300G of disk space – an iPod with 1/5 that space costs twice as much.

The one thing that would take this product from second base to home would be network access. Given that it is running a standard Linux distribution, I have to believe that it would be fairly easy to support a USB network interface. If I could load new media on the TVisto without having to lug it from one room to another, I think I would then be able to say the TVisto 3500 is feature complete. (Opening this box up for community software development might be one way to get those new features in more quickly.)

A few notes on pros and cons to help you with your buying decision:

Pro:

  • No fan
  • Small footprint
  • Very inexpensive
  • Plays ISO-ripped DVDs
  • Plays DivX compressed video
  • OS independent

Con:

  • No protected music
  • No network access
  • Lots of UI limitations – slow scan through music and photos
  • No playlists
  • No shuffling across folders
  • Doesn’t read ID3V2 tags

Look at it this way – in the worst case, you’ll still get to use it as a portable hard drive!