Entering The World Of Android Based Media Players

Android1.png

This is gonna be a good one. An Apple Fanboy Going Android..... WTF!?

Yep, it's true to some extent. The reason for letting myself into the Android world is a media player one. Up till recent I was quite happy with my Popcorn Hour A-110, which I bought 6-7 years ago. Happiness started to fade when transfer speeds and connections to the device started to fail. Networking was never its strongest part, even though it had a 100mbps interface. For some reason it never got above the 10Mbps speeds. Had something to do with the processing priority of the device.

Anyway, lately, larger FTP transfers failed for whatever reason, and using SAMBA transfers.... well, don't get me started on that file transfer protocol. Sending communications by pigeon-mail is faster. And since streaming over the network was not an option for the larger (far less compressed) x264 encoded movies or TV shows, I started to look for an alternative.

The alternative should be able to connect to remote media sources, and have enough processing power for the network adapter to get decent a throughput. Also some additional multimedia features were on the 'very-nice-to-have' list. These features included (but were not limited to);

  • stream various content from the web
  • not limited to just video
  • easily modifiable (apps etc.)
  • prepared for the future (4k video?)
  • xbmc (or something alike)

With this list of requirements, there were about a gazillion candidates, because every player out there tends to support this. So I needed to narrow down the candidates. I did exclude the current Popcorn Hour because of the physical size of there latest models.

This wasn't very easy, until a colleague of mine mentioned the Minix Neo media players. These players are Android based, and customizable till you drop. Also, they (the Minix company) have been developing these players for a couple of years now, so they are likely to get things right (they'd better....).

Minix Neo 8X-H Plus Media Player

The version I wanted was the one with DTS audio capabilities AND Gigabit Ethernet. Hence the Minix Neo 8X-H Plus. I also wanted, after reading several fora, another remote (the Flymouse A2 Lite with a keyboard on the other side). The included remote is a bit limited.

So after a couple of clicks on the Interwebs, and a 2 day wait, the Minix fell on the doormat, and the fun began.

Before I continue, I must mention that I'm an Android n00b. The only Android phone I owned (Samsung Galaxy S2) has been switched on for 10 minutes in total, and disappeared in its box on a shelve. I am accustomed to the Windows, Apple OSX and Apple iOS user interfaces. So if they 'throw' a media device at me with an operating system developed for a phone with a touch display you might smell trouble on the horizon.

Because of the possible challenges ahead, I did order a more custom pre-configured device which should make it an easier device to configure and operate for the average user. CHALLENGE ACCEPTED!!

The device itself is slim and resembles the latest Apple TV in many ways. The only difference is the relative large WiFi antenna (which you can remove if you're using the Gigabit Ethernet connection). It has three USB2 ports, an SD-card reader, HMDI and Optical (SPDIF) out.
The 3 USB2 ports should have been at least 4, because you're going to lose one for the remote, and if you're going to use a 2.5" USB powered hard disk you're going to need the other two (all my 2.5" drives needed both ports to function because of the power consumption) leaving you with no ports available for other removable devices. Or they should have made at least one high-power USB port.

My intention was to add a large 2.5" USB drive and transfer my media files over the network. I used this same concept on my Popcorn Hour A-110, but transferring files to the device was a challenge. It was extremely slow (SAMBA), and FTP isn't a native option.
For FTP you need an additional app, and those apps can be bought/downloaded in the Google Play app store. A store containing apps for mobile devices and not so much for these media players. And since the media player is in a different room, I can't be bothered with switching the FTP server on and off every time I need to transfer content.

The first FTP app (and many others like it) was not able to use the Ethernet port. Only the wifi connection (why would you limit FTP only to wireless devices??) The ones I found were not able to run as a service or needed root access on the device. So transferring/uploading media over the network to the device was a no go.
During these challenges you need to input data constantly in different fields in different places in the Android operating system and applications (email addresses, usernames, passwords, IP addresses, etc). This is done by the remote, and you can imagine the frustration on that, since the operating system and apps are designed for mobile devices with a touch display (and pop-up keyboard).
This is one of the main problems I have with the media player device. Sure, you can buy special (small) keyboards that connect over Blue-tooth, but that's another investment, and it shouldn't be necessary.

Since most of my media originates on my Apple server, I had the idea of sharing that content to the Minix Neo. Another brilliant idea that went sour when you least expect it.....

The Minix has the possibility to connect to network shares by using the following protocols:

  • Apple File Sharing (AFP)
  • Windows Filesharing (SAMBA/SMB)
  • Network Filesharing (NFS)

And it's also possible to use usernames and passwords for these connections. The only problem is that the used protocols are using a 'format' that is no longer accepted by my Apple Server.
When you're adding a password secured share to Minix, it creates a URL with the following syntax:

smb://<username>:<password>@<minix-host>/

Username and password are displayed in plain-text. This was a security issue a couple of years ago, and was deprecated in many services. One being my Apple server. I remembered this, because I had some challenges in the past regarding this issue.
This meant that I had to enable and use an anonymous guest account on my server. The problem was that I didn't recognize it as such until after a couple of hours frustration. Combine that with the extremely annoying way of inputting data into the device, and you know I had the time of my life.

Okay, moving on. I enabled the guest account on my server and gave it enough right on the shares. Et voilĂ , I was able to connect the Minix to my server <insert small victory dance here>. I was happy, until the next challenge presented itself; the server connection got lost after a couple of seconds playing content.... WTF!? I had to reboot the Minix to get reconnected. I spent several hours trying to figure out what was happening. I eventually got online and bought a Synology NAS (which was on my wishlist anyway in the near future).

Having transferred all media to the NAS, I connected the Minix by browsing the home network, et another voilĂ , and it worked (movies kept playing). XBMC had even created a nice library with all the movies and TV Shows. I was in techno-heaven, until I spotted the audio wasn't Dolby Digital or DTS. It was outputting the audio as plain stereo or old-skool Dolby Surround.

This time I was relatively fast in finding the appropriate settings (Dolby Passthrough, DTS capable receiver, etc) and turned them on, only to be disappointed again....
Movies stuttered (image and audio)...... *Sigh* after a couple of seconds. Rebooting the device didn't help either.

Back to the drawing board; All content plays (extremely) well when the content is attached to the Minix over USB. Movies also played without hiccups when I accessed them over UPnP (universal Plug-and-Play). But the problem with the UPnP protocol is that you cannot create a nice Movie and TV Show library in XBMC. You just have to browse through all the content (which is sooo 2007).

So my problem was definitely network protocol related, and since you cannot change that many settings on the Minix, I went to the NAS. There I switched of SAMBA/SMB and NFS filesharing, and allowed only the native Apple protocol (AFP). I reconnected (using the guest/anonymous account!!) the shares in the Minix and everything worked fine. Movies stream without hickups in 1080p/60Hz with DTS or Dolby Digital.

You need to remember one thing; with AFP, you have to include the full path, including the share-point, and directory, and for some reason even the IP address of the NAS didn't work. I had to use the Fully Qualified Domain Name;

afp://DiskStation.lan/video/Movies/
and
afp://DiskStation.lan/video/TV Shows/

From this point on, I will need to familiarize myself with the Android/XBMC eco-system, but I'm glad that I finally got it to work.

This leaves me with some thoughts on the subject;

  • The Android-based players are relatively cheap, and you can customize them till you drop. The only (biggest) problem is that you also need to be knowledgeable about a lot of stuff. It's no wonder that Apple is expanding as it is. They deliver high-quality products that basically everyone can operate. Sure, you don't get the customization benefits you get with these Android devices, but it just works.
  • I also think that they should fork the Android OS and create a real Media Player platform. One where you don't have the awkward user interface designed for tablets and phones, because that is the most annoying thing/experience I've encountered so far.
  • XBMC still crashes a lot. Especially when you fiddle with the remote. Don't touch the remote and everything is fine.
    I did find an Apple iOS App for XBMC, and that one is remarkable stable, although a bit limited when you want to add additional subtitles or change the audio track.

UPDATE: the AFP protocol doesn't seem not that reliable. Some movies (especially Matroska MKV files) stopped playing at certain points. No way of skipping over that particular point. The same movie played fine over the UPnP protocol (remember; no library option), so I defaulted all the settings on the Synology, and configured SMB for the NAS shares on the Minix.

This time I can even use fast-forward with all the movies. Fingers crossed that this solves all my Minix problems.

UPDATE 2 (November 25 2015): We've been experiencing some new issues with playing movies / TV Shows. For some reason the content stops. This results in a black screen, and after a few seconds the Kodi movie/show list pops up. Restarting the movie/show will pick-up where it 'crashed' and continues. This problem might occur a few times while watching.

I removed the pre-installed HardwareGuru firmware and installed the most recent stable Minix firmware and reinstalled the box from scratch (I did make a backup of the Kodi database). This didn't solve the problem. Eventually, I created a Kodi advanced settings file called advancedsettings.xml with some video caching parameters (as suggested in the wiki). This seems to work (till now).

<advancedsettings>
  <network>
    <buffermode>1</buffermode>
    <cachemembuffersize>104857600</cachemembuffersize>
    <readbufferfactor>2</readbufferfactor>
  </network>
</advancedsettings>
Posted on December 27, 2014 and filed under Gadgets, Hardware, Personal, Review, Tips'n Tricks, Video.