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Apple Vs. DLNA – Remote Control

I am continuing to experiment with DLNA controllers, now I’m looking at the video playback options and comparing them with proprietary ecosystems.  Apple has perhaps done the best job in this area with their Airplay technology, making it easy enough for the non-Geek to setup and use (that is, of course, Apple’s signature and strength).  I have the Apple TV (2nd Generation for all discussion here), the Remote App on my iPad, and iTunes on my Windows 7 PC.  Sadly, there is no Mac in the house at this time, but I don’t think it would make a difference for this usage.

My goal is to control what I watch on the TV using a tablet as a remote control – in this case, my iPad.  Basically, this can be accomplished using the Apple Airplay from the iPad, but you are limited in your programming sources.  There are two ways to do this.  First, anything you are watching on your iPad, if the player is Airplay-compatible, you can play that media on your TV through your Apple TV.  Apple led this solution with their iTunes product, but YouTube and some other web video players also give you the Airplay option to play to your Apple TV  (but of course, not Flash player!).   The nice thing about this method, is you can preview what you’re going to watch on the tablet first – this is my “golden fleece” for a controller.

The second method of Apple playback is directly from an iTunes “server” to your Apple TV, with the iPad acting as the controller.  This actually works quite nice, but you must have your Mac or PC running iTunes, so it’s not so good if you don’t like having your PC be the family media server – especially if it’s your laptop that you take on business travel.  This is really my main complaint about this Apple solution – there’s a world of home uPnP and DLNA media servers out there, but they make you use iTunes as your media service.  I have yet to try installing iTunes on my Ubuntu media server (yes, there are people who have done this using Wine), but no matter how you slice it, iTunes is designed as a client application, not as a server.

So now back to DLNA…  As I wrote previously in the audio controller assessment, I’ve been using several DLNA controller apps on my iPad: Media:Connect, EyeconTroller, and PlugPlayer.  Now these apps offer more functionality than remote control; they are also players and server, but the controller function is my main interest at this point.  My media server is Twonky running on Ubuntu and the player I’ve been using is the A110 Popcorn Hour.  Being DLNA, most of the newer DLNA-compliant players, such as TVs, Blu-rays, and Home Theater receivers will work essentially the same as my old Popcorn Hour (aka PCH).  In summary, they all had some occasional app crashes and certain playback control had to be done directly on the player using the remote.  Position in the playback slider only worked for Youtube videos, but that may be attributable to the server, not the app.  The volume control appeared to be functional, but not useful – in my case volume was always done via the remote for the home theater receiver.  I was able to play mp4, m4v, mkv files, but none of the apps could play an m2ts container file (used for making Blu-rays) – this may be a showstopper for many.  I was able to re-encode the m2ts into a smaller m4v file with the same 1080p resolution and that played fine. Here are some specific impressions…

The Media:Connect controller was the most buggy, crashing and losing some functionality during use.  Its UI was not intuitive – you select media on one screen, click a button to see the player screen, click another button to switch between playlist and player control.  My greatest peeve with MC was the lack of search capability – how would someone locate a video in a large library? – kind of a show-stopper.  The m2ts failure showed the message “error code 714, illegal MIME-type.”

PlugPlayer had a nice UI – it was easy to search and pick videos.  It also let you add individual devices in case the discovery didn’t find your device (a nice feature).  Also, the devices can be given meaningful nicknames.  The only strange behavior was in the video playlist – when I picked a video to play, everything showing in the browse view was added to the playlist – this seemed like a bug.  If you selected an m2ts video, it added it to the playlist, but instead played the last video that worked.

Eyecon is the controller that I liked the most.  The UI is compact and efficient, and once I was familiar with the drag-and-drop method of adding items to the playlist, I liked being able to see everything on one screen.   When a video is selected from the browse panel, information about that clip is shown in the top panel of the screen (size, date, etc.), and selected Youtube videos could be previewed in the controller app before actually playing it on the TV (awesome!).  The search function was well designed, letting you search across multiple local servers, if you wanted.  The lack of m2ts support was well behaved – when trying to drag an m2ts file to the player, it showed a red X indicating you could not play that file.

So why am I interest in using a tablet as a controller? – because it is the future of television remote control.  The day is coming when we will use a tablet to select what we are going to watch on the TV, and we will even be able to preview the content on the tablet before pushing it to the TV.  I saw glimpses of this preview feature with the EyeCon DLNA app for some video sources and with Apple Airplay (first method), although the Airplay can’t preview on the iPad when something is already playing on the TV.  Still there is a whole other solution set for tablet control – the IR blasters.  This technology has been around for a while, but in itself does not really support previewing content on the tablet.  An IR blaster can either be attached directly to the tablet (the new Vizio tablet has one built-in) or can be controlled over a home network, turning your tablet into a universal remote control.