Good news, everyone!
In the first post in this series, I suggested that the Chromecast might become a viable option for telly-watching, once it starts shipping in the UK. That hasn't officially happened, but you can get one on Amazon (but be warned, Google won't help you if you get stuck, as it's not purchased through an official channel).
Last month however, I got one and have had fun with Netflix and a little YouTube. Up until today that was it really, but yesterday Google added 10 new apps to the Chromecast family, most importantly for the cord-cutter, Plex Media Server. This is the solution for handling local media, as it bypasses the need to fiddle around with browser tabs. It could also in the future be a way through to things like iPlayer, although that currently doesn't work via Google's Cast platform.
With Plex, TV shows you download have to be in a specific format, so that the server can understand them and then grab additional metadata for you. If you've got a handful of shows you want to play, that's OK; anything more and you might want to look into automated systems (I looked at a few but my limited knowledge of Automator on the Mac got me nowhere).
However, if you habitually watch telly downloaded via BitTorrent and you have a Mac, you simply must check out the TVShows app. It's a Preferences pane, which runs in the background and checks for new episodes of the shows you subscribe to. It finds a torrent, downloads it and - if you set it up right - can place the file in the right location for Plex to pick up. Here's what you need to do:
- Install TVShows
- Subscribe to some shows
- Open the Preferences tab and set your "Episode save location" to the directory where you want Plex to find your telly shows
- Make sure "Save each show in its own folder" is ticked and "Prioritise Magnet links" is unticked as this can cause automation problems with Transmission (the OSX BitTorrent client of choice)
- In Transmission preferences, set the "Default location" dropdown in the Transfers tab to "Same as torrent file"
- Tick "Start transfers when added" and untick "Display a window when opening a torrent file" so there's no roadblocks and TVShows can download stuff while you're away from your machine.
To further automate things, open the Plex preferences page, select the "Plex Media Server" section (as apposed to "Plex/Web"), the Library subsection and tick "Update my library automatically". This should tell Plex to add your newly-downloaded shows to the Plex library so it's ready to access.
I've just done this process with a number of Simpsons episodes, and the whole process is frankly amazing. With the Plex app on my phone - which you have to pay for, but is worth it considering Plex itself is free - I can select a show, hit the Chromecast icon and then Play, and the show starts on my telly after a few seconds, in beautiful HD (the episode of the Simpsons was flawless and played with no interruption or apparent frame-rate drops).
What I'm also blown away by is media syncing across devices. If I want to watch the latest episode of Dracula on my Nexus 7 while at the gym (#charmedlife, #hashtaggingoutsideoftwitter), I hit the show thumbnail, select an episode, hit Sync and select my Nexus 7.
Frankly this is all looking a little too good to be true. Not all of this awesomeness is due to the new traunch of Chromecast-ready apps, but it certainly helps in that "I've just got back from work and I want to plot infront of the telly" thing, especially if your Mac's been working hard for you all day, downloading stuff for you to enjoy with a bowl of pasta and a scotch.
It's possible that life might not get any better.
Bad news bears
Don't worry, this isn't an update to the previous post. Just a rant concerning ITV. I haven't played with 4oD on Android, but on the iPad I remember it worked perfectly (apart from their dickhead lawyers' intransigence when it comes to AirPlay). So there's definitely not a problem with commercial providers getting in the on-demand game.
So why is it then, that ITV have such a poor product? My feeling is that their hearts aren't in it. ITV's audience is 50+ at its core. Yes they've got their X Factor stuff but that only serves one night a week, whereas the rest of their programming is geared towards a very different market, and not one that is a) necessarily that tech savvy, or b) of an on-demand mindset. Therefore their ITV Player is very much an also-ran.
By default it doesn't work on Android; you have to tweak settings in order to get streaming to work for longer than 10 seconds at a time. And because the developers' bosses are so insanely afeared of showing you content without ads, that's what they prioritise: ads. Which is fine if you can do it right, but they can't. Try resuming a programme, either because it's crashed - which happens a lot - or because you had to go for a wee, and you'll have to watch a bunch of ads again in order to start the programme from the beginning, regardless of where you left off. Try to seek to the position you want, and you'll have to sit through all the ads that make up for the breaks you've missed by skipping over the content, even though you've already watched it!
When it works on the device, the content plays pretty well, although not in great quality (but quality has never been a pillar of ITV programming. Zing, etc). Try to throw that over to an Apple TV and the thing shits itself. Stuttering and long swathes of silent video are what you'll get. So this would be something to avoid.
I'm hopeful that there might be some kind of pass-through technology that Plex will be able to implement, whereby content from a plugin (like BBC Player or ITV Player) can be fed through Plex to the Chromecast. That might not be technologically possible, but it could be an interesting way of getting round the adoption issue.
I'm going to go away in a moment. But before I do, let me strongly urge you, if you're looking into an Apple TV, Chromecast, Roku type solution, although I recognise it's early days, keep an eye on Chromecast and Plex. I was considering buying a cheap Roku, and now I don't have to. OK, I might miss some iPlayer stuff until the Beeb adds Chromecast support - which I hope they do - but honestly, most of the good stuff is available on BitTorrent anyway (I'm fine about that; I pay my license fee and am proud to).
Plex is a wonderful system. I've paid for a year's membership to their PlexPass thing. I wasn't entirely sure why until today. I've got nothing extra from at this point (as I'm not quite sure how their CloudSync thing helps me) but it doesn't cost much and, more importantly, they deserve it for building not only a stellar media manager, but a brilliant alternative to a Roku box, and something that, to my mind puts Apple TV in the shade.