Category Archives: Apple TV

Sorting the Frame Rate Problem Using RasPlex

Back in January I wrote about the problems of trying to get streaming video to play back smoothly from Plex on our Apple TV, or XBox, or Fire TV, or pretty well anything, whilst I’d got around the problem by manually switching the Apple TV back and forth, it was still not really a satisfactory solution, and also didn’t solve the problem with any 24fps movie content. I also found that even well established apps like Netflix suffer the same problem on the Apple TV when we were watching The Crown where the shots with trains passing the camera had exactly the same jitter problem that was coming up on my content from Plex.

After a bit of research I’ve found that there is only one TV streaming box that can switch frame rates for Plex playback, and that is the NVIDIA Shield, but since that retails for £170 and doesn’t do anything much more than the XBox, Apple TV or Fire TV options we have already I wasn’t too keen.

From looking through the many online discussions of the problem, it seems that people running the now deprecated Plex Home Theater had got around the problem, and people using the built in Plex clients on smart TV’s didn’t have the issue, but again getting a new PC or Mac to go in the living room, or replacing our TV wasn’t really a cheap option either.

Then I came across RasPlex which is an actively developed port of Plex Home Theater to the Raspberry Pi. Like the PC and Mac versions of Plex Home Theater it was able to switch resolution, and with the arrival of the Raspberry Pi 3, the little £33 computer is more than capable of driving 1080p video.

At this point, after my experience setting up flight tracking with a Raspberry Pi I thought I’d be writing an explanation of setting it up, but RasPlex is really dead easy. The most fiddly bit of the whole process was getting the tiny screws that mount the Raspberry Pi 3 I bought into case into the equally tiny holes. RasPlex provide installers for Windows, Mac and Linux that will set up the software on a suitable memory card, and then it is as simple as plugging the Raspberry Pi into a power socket and your TV and turning on. The Raspberry Pi 3 has built in Wifi that RasPlex detects, and whilst it takes a bit of time when first booted to cache data from your Plex server, once it is up and running it is fine.

To get the resolution changes you’ll need to dig down into the advanced video settings, because by default RasPlex will stick to whatever resolution is set for the user interface, much like the commercial streaming boxes. However once that setting was changed, whatever video I threw at it worked fine on our TV – a slight pause as the TV switched frame rate and off it went. The other nice plus was that even with our seven year old Panasonic TX-L32S10 we didn’t need a separate remote for the Raspberry Pi as since the TV has HDMI-CEC support we can navigate the RasPlex user interface with the regular TV remote.

There are a couple of downsides, firstly unlike the Apple TV, the Raspberry Pi doesn’t have a sleep mode. The power save options on RasPlex will shut the whole Raspberry Pi down, at which point you have to cycle the power to wake it up again. Also the Raspberry Pi didn’t seem able to drive the picture through the cheapie HDMI switcher we have connecting the increasing number of HDMI devices we have to the TV.

However even with buying the Raspberry Pi, a suitable case with heatsinks for the processors on the Raspberry Pi that potentially get rather a workout, memory card and power supply, I still ended up with a Plex box for less than £60, and one that plays video significantly better than any of the established players by switching the TV to the correct frame rate.

That of course just leaves one final question, if a £33 box can do it, why can’t Apple, Roku, Amazon and all the rest do the same thing? Apple and Amazon especially are selling content that would benefit from a switchable box, and yet none of them do it, and instead ship boxes that make their content look rubbish.

The TV Frame Game

Through another one of the numerous techie competing standards stories, (the TL;DR summary being that NTSC TV standard was considered a bit rubbish on this side of the pond and as a result in Europe we developed two alternative standards PAL and SECAM) in the UK and the USA we ended up with two somewhat incompatible TV systems. In the USA they had TV pictures with a vertical resolution of 480 lines, playing at a frame rate of 30 frames per second, whilst on this side of the Atlantic we were watching a  higher resolution 576 line picture, but playing at a frame rate of 25 frames per second. The TV companies had ways of converting pictures between the two standards, and eventually we got to home video recorders being able to play tapes recorded in the other standard, and TV’s that could cope with both, indeed these days in the UK you’ll find most DVD or BluRay players and TV’s will quite happily switch between European 50Hz standards and the North American 60Hz, whatever the standard of the material that was put into the machine.

When the HD standards came around there seemed to be general agreement across the world, and everybody settled on 720 lines or 1080 lines for high definition pictures and all seemed right with the world… Or maybe not…

That brings us to me watching a video last night which involved a number of shots of trains going left to right or right to left across the screen, and a really annoying judder as the trains went past. I was watching from an HD video file playing back on our Apple TV through Plex. Thinking it was a problem with the Apple TV I tried it through Plex on our Xbox One – same problem, and watching the raw file on the desktop, same problem again. Looking at the file it had come from a UK production company and was encoded in 1080p with a frame rate of 25 frames per second, perfectly standard UK file. So I took a look at the Apple TV. Digging into the settings I had the picture standard set to Auto, further down it said it had automatically set itself to 1080p 60Hz. There was also an option to specify which picture format to use, with a 1080p 50Hz option, so I switched that over, watched the file again, and away went the judder, switch back to auto and the Apple TV would decide to switch to 1080p 60Hz.

The basic problem seems to be that unlike the DVD Players, video recorders or BluRay players the latest generation of devices like the Apple TV or Xbox, even though many are capable of switching the resolution, automatically go for 1080p 60Hz and then behave as if the TV they’re connected to is a dumb panel that can’t cope with any other standard, as a result they then try to convert video at another frame rate in software. The judder I could see on the video is a result of the Apple TV or Xbox trying to show 25 frames per second on a device that is wanting 30 frames per second, so on smooth movements you get the judder because 20% of the frames in any one second of video are being shown twice. Knowing my TV is a European model that can cope with a 50Hz picture I can switch the Apple TV over and it works fine (not so for the Xbox incidentally) but then if I watch a North American video at 30 frames per second the Apple TV is locked in 50Hz and has much the same problem trying to handle showing 30 frames in the period when it only has 25 frames.

At this point the cinema purists are going to point out that there is another very common frame rate, with is 24 frames per second, which is the frame rate that most movies are made at, and many BluRays are now released as that standard because again a lot of TV sets these days will cope with the frame rate. So what do the Apple TV, Xbox and other TV streamer boxes do? They try and show those 24 frames in whatever frame rate the box is currently set to, and have exactly the same problem.

Going through my digital videos I have a real mixed bag. Most of the UK stuff is 25 frames per second, some where it has come off film is 24 frames per second, US stuff mostly 30 frames per second. Looking at home videos I have the same mixed bag, primarily because even though they’re all UK bought devices the cameras and phones I’ve had over the years don’t always produce UK standard video, for example iPhones using the standard camera software will consistently record in 60Hz standards – you have to resort to apps like Filmic to get the phone to record in European 50Hz standards, or even 24 frames per second if you want to work with cinema standards.

So even though world has agreed the size of a picture, there is still no agreement over how many of those pictures are shown per second. Most of our digital streaming boxes either will only work at the US 60Hz standard (the earliest Sky Now boxes were stuck on 60Hz) or are switchable but thanks to the software are difficult to switch across – the Apple TV you have to go rummaging in the settings, on the Xbox you effectively have to con the Xbox into thinking your TV can only do 50Hz pictures before it will switch – with the devices doing a second rate job when your TV is quite often perfectly capable of playing things back correctly.

Having one standard is never going to work as we’ll still have vast amounts of archive content at the older frame rates, so for the moment it would really help if the digital streamer manufacturers actually started acknowledging that there are a variety of standards – even your average US consumer who doesn’t have any 50Hz content is going to notice glitching if they watch a movie. We’ve had DVD and Video Recorders that could switch for years, why is it that the new tech seems to have taken such a massive step backwards?

Featured image old tv stuff by Gustavo Devito

Apple chief Tim Cook admits ‘intense interest’ in television sector

“We are going to keep pulling the string and see where this takes us,” Mr Cook said of its future TV plans. Asked during an interview at the All Things Digital Conference in California on Tuesday night whether Apple will produce a TV, Mr Cook said: “You were right. I’m not going to tell you.”

via Apple chief Tim Cook admits ‘intense interest’ in television sector – Telegraph.

So it looks like Apple’s culture of secrecy continues, but definite hints that an Apple TV is on the way, even if he won’t say. Also hints that relations may be warming with Facebook leading to Facebook being baked into iOS in a similar way to Twitter, but don’t hold your breath…

Apple TV – Steve What Have You Done?

Today was the September Apple Event, when Steve Jobs stood up in front of the worlds media and showed them what Apple will be selling this festive season.

This year, as expected we got a revamped iPod range, with a touchscreen iPod Nano, an iPod Touch that picks up features from the iPhone 4, and a revamped version of iTunes. To support all of that we also have iOS 4.1 on the way, which hopefully will work a lot better on my iPhone 3G, and a preview of iOS 4.2.

But the big news was the demise of the original Apple TV.

The Apple TV was always a bit of a Marmite product, loved by some, loathed by many.

Many people bemoan it’s limited functionality, in particular the limited number of media formats it supports, and the fact that the only device that can play media from the built in 40Gb or 160Gb hard drive is the Apple TV itself. However within it’s limited parameters it does exactly what it says on the tin, and does it very well.

I have to say here that we have one of the 160Gb models, and it gets a good deal of use. It holds a large proportion of our main iTunes database including hours and hours of music, several TV series for the children, a number of digital copies of movies, plus quite a few video and audio podcasts. We’ve also on a number of occasions rented movies and watched them using the device.

The new Apple TV is a bit different. It is a massively smaller device – about 80% according to the Apple website – and they’ve done this by leaving out the hard drive totally. Essentially this is now a media extender. As now it can stream content off a networked Mac, and as a new party piece can stream content off an iPhone or iPad. You can still rent movies, and now TV shows on it, but rather than download and watch, Apple seem to think that you can watch them streaming straight off the Internet.

Now I don’t know what the broadband connection is like in Palo Alto, but my first response sat in semi-rural England is you must be joking.

We’re fairly lucky, we’re pretty close to the telephone exchange, but thanks to the lousy BT infrastructure we can get between 5 and 7.5Mbps. Our ISP is pretty good but still, watching the current HD trailers is a bit of a struggle on our connection. The idea that watching a HD movie in the same way will be in any way a pleasurable experience is laughable. Plus with the limited broadband deals that many people use the idea of “watching as many times in 48 hours as you like” rapidly wears off when you realise that it’s download the file over and over again every time you watch it – the current Apple TV downloads the file ONCE and then deletes itself at the end of 48 hours.

Granted if you live in a cable equipped urban area or are lucky enough to be in a 20Mbps ADSL area you might be better off, but still the idea of “All Streaming, No Hassle” is anything but for large numbers of people in the UK, and I suspect similar numbers of people who live outside urban areas in the USA as well.

For us, the only realistic option is to stream from another device on a local network – in our case that will be the main Mac hosting the iTunes database. That’s all very well, but it’s a total pain – the Mac has to be booted up and logged on so that the new Apple TV can access it – the new Apple TV may have wonderfully low power consumption, but it’s worth nothing if you’re having to run a Mac or PC to provide the content.

And just one final little annoyance – the new box is now so small that the connectivity choice is HDMI or HDMI – I’m using composite cables…

So, yes Steve Jobs, I’m terribly impressed by how small it is, but it’s really a retrograde step for existing Apple TV users like me. Having said that, if you’d announce a media server that could host up a central iTunes database…