Jeff Sexton

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

House Music - Mediatomb and PS3 Update

Having used a Mediatomb server with a Sony Play Station 3 client for awhile now, I have a few observations...

* Video is tricky to setup. Getting the contents of a DVD into a form that can be steamed to your PS3 is not documented nor easy. It does work, if you are persistent, and get the right software. There are legal grey areas here.

* I have two DVDs from which I could not create an AVI file that the PS3 would play. In both cases, the PS3 would act like it was indeed playing the stream, but there would be no picture nor sound. This did not appear to be related to the bit rate, frame rate or any other setting I adjusted (using dvd::rip) so I have no explanation. Other DVDs I have tried worked fine. Although me sample is small, just 6 or 7 discs.

* One other problem I had with one single disc was that the stream resulted an incorrect aspect ratio. Actually, the video was cut off at the top and bottom and all I got was a very, very narrow band in the middle of the film. Strange. No explanation. Oh, and with another disc, the AVI video froze near the end, while the soundtrack continued. When the content was over, the sound ended normally, but several minuted of video werethus missing. A lot of wierd things happen with this stuff.

* It is possible to get quite good video and sound quality in about a 2-3 GB AVI file. But the quality is not perfect, and there are occasional artifacts. The sound (in MP3) is likewise good, but not as good as it can be. So, as far as video goes, I will not be using the media server for more than a convenience. I can't see converting a library of DVDs to AVI.

* Music playlists work fine, but Mediatomb does not pick up new M3U files when it is set for a timed rescan of a directory containing such files. When it does a timed rescan, the playlist entry appears in the Mediatomb log output and, if you happen to catch it, in the web application's status line. However, the playlist is never made available in the database to select and play, and indeed does not appear in the database section of the web application. Playlists are added to Mediatomb with no trouble when they are individually added with the "add" link, rather than by using a timed scan.

* Scans that Mediatomb does on startup take quite a long time (on my system, I have a lot of content). It would be nice if this could be controlled, and also triggered manually when I know I've changed something.

* On the PS3 side, it would be nice if I could navigate in a more flexible manner by arist and album (such as when I'm playing a file from a playlist, and I'd like to see and play other tracks by that artist or the particular album).

* Also, the PS3 takes quite awhile to transfer complete information from the server when opening a media category. For example, when a playlist contains a couple thousand items, you have to select it, then wait until the PS3 has the entire list transfered. It does not cache this information at all. If you have a large music collection, then opening artists, for example, and browsing for something, is completely impractical.

* If you select a playlist to play before the entire list is transfered, then the PS3 will only play the selections that got transfered up to that point.

* There are three visualizations available on the PS3 for music. Although they are all interesting at first, just having three makes me wish "plain black screen with the track information at the bottom" was one of the choices.

* This setup provides no way to edit M3U files from the M3U. An alternative would be to store media on the PS3 and use it's playlists, but that doesn't give me the distributed interface I want.

* It would be nice if Mediatomb output information about what it is streaming. This would allow me to build alternative interfaces on the server side for playlist control.

* Multi-channel (more than stereo) soundtracks work fine.

* The PS3 will display thumbnail artwork embedded in MP3 files.

* Photos work fine, but the interface is not very robust. I'll stick with Google's Picasa, although leaving my photos volume up to date in Mediatomb's database certainly does no harm and the PS3 provides a good way to show photos to a group.

* I have not experimented with any formats other than AVI and MP3.

On the whole, the Mediatomb/PS3 (Ubuntu 8.10 server) is quite usable, as far as it goes. It doesn't do everything I want, but it's useful enough to keep installed. Next up, I plan to experiment with a streaming server, adding that stream to a Mediatomb playlist. By controlling the stream on the server, I'll have the control I want over what plays. And I'll be able to build a web interface for that control. The downside is that doing that will give up the PS3's ability to do that control 0 the stream will act just like an "internet radio station". But maybe with the combination of both approaches available, I can get (a little closer) to where I want to be.

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