Veebeam: Wireless USB set-top media magic

Veebeam have come up with a novel idea to play content from your computer on your television. Instead of streaming individual files over your local area network (like almost every other media set-top box in the world), it simply sends your entire desktop.

That’s right – rather than worrying about codecs and file formats, Veebeam decided to skip the complex bit. Instead, it just take your computer’s video and sound output and send them via Wireless USB to a set top box, plugged into your home media set-up. And it’ll do it in 1080p HD, too.

veebeam

This means that it’ll be the most compatible set-top box in the world. It’ll play BBC iPlayer, YouTube, and all your illegal movie streaming sites, as well as downloaded video and personal photos. Anything your computer can display will be faithfully reproduced on the TV.

The software features two modes, “Screencasting'”, for sharing websites or photos, and “Play-To” mode, which should allow you to send video to the Veebeam while still being able to use the computer for more sensible, less-media interested purposes.

While this sounds like an extremely promising proposition, the problem is with Wireless USB. The technology, with a maximum bandwidth of 480Mbit/s at three metres, hasn’t really lived up to its billing in consumer appliances.

With that kind of bandwidth, it should be able to send up to 30 HD video streams at the same time. As Engadget has shown, however, previous Wireless USB devices have struggled at pushing 720p across a living room.

We’d wait for a review before purchase, although prices start at an almost-worth-the-gamble £99.

Popcorn Hour C-200, a media tank?

I, like many others, have a lot of media stored on my computer – photos, films, music etc. However the small cramped bedroom where my computer resides is a less than perfect space to show off high resolution still images, to appreciated complex cinematography or even to dance to my Party Mixes. That is what my (modest) home cinema setup was for.  But how to connect one to the other?

For a long time, the solution to my problems was the Xbox Media Centre (XBMC). Lovingly built by open source nerds, XBMC was a modification of the original Xbox software that enabled the playback of virtually any file you could throw at it.  Not for the faint hearted, installing XBMC involved modding xboxs, ftp connections, command line instruction, setting up network shares and wading in grey legal waters. However the end results were more than worth it and to this day XBMC remains one of the best media centres I have ever worked with and the standard all media players that follow are judged by. Rather than simply focus on playback, the team behind XBMC harnessed the power of online tools such as IMDB to provide contextual information – cover art, episode summaries, casting information. I ended up converting most of the box sets I owned to XBMC as it was a much more enjoyable way to experience video.

However the relentless march of technology gradually overcame my 8-year-old Xbox. It chocked on 720p video and 1080p was out of the question. A new media workhorse was needed to take on the high definition era.

The media centre landscape has changed significantly over the last 10 years. The hobby project of some highly skill enthusiasts had paved the way for a number of similar devices. Apple released the AppleTv, which I foolishly ran out and purchased.  A competent media device for a heavy iTunes store user, the AppleTv lacked the polish and flexibility of XBMC. It is possible to modify the AppleTv to run XBMC (or its social network orientated cousin Boxee) but this not only involves patch sticks, ftps, and legal worries but also requires a fresh installation anytime Apple update the software. 1080p playback is also unreliable.

One could also just buy an actual desktop computer with a DVI or HDMI out and hook that up to a TV but this has always seemed like a waste of processing power to me, and I am keen to desktop boot times and system crashes.

At this point I thought I’d take a look at the PopCornHour – billed as “the world’s most advanced Networked Media Tank.” I liked it already. A friend who owned the device – the C200, invited me around to put the system through its paces.

The PopCornHour is dedicated network and local media playback device. Connecting to network shares was ridiculously easy and from opening the box to watching Blade Runner took less than 15 minutes. For context I spent a day getting Boxee on my AppleTv and a weekend went into the XBMC.

The PopCornHour outputs in full HD and played 1080p content with ease. The USB port allows you to connect external hard drives the C200 has a spare bay for an optional Blu Ray drive, making it a complete unit. The WN-100 wifi adapter allows wireless streaming, which is fine for SD content but for HD I would stick to a wired connection.

With my XBMC I got into the habit of ripping my DVD collection using Handbrake on my Mac.  The C200 allows you to do the same directly from the device. Quite amazingly it also comes fitted with BitTorrent and Usenet clients and links to a number of online video portals, making the unit incredibly capable and self-contained.   Shoutcast radio and podcast support is also included.

The Operating system YAMJ is decent, and pulls online information from sources such as IMDB. However it lacks the polish of XBMC offshoots such as Plex or Boxee.

Overall I was very impressed with the unit, and would definitely purchase one (RPP US$299) over a simple Blu Ray player. However with a dedicated media player from the people at Boxee around the corner (with a scheduled 2010 launch) I’m delaying a purchase until I can do a direct comparison.