Pinnacle Showcenter 1000

Media servers for Pinnacle Showcenter 1000

I’ve had a Pinnacle Showcenter 1000 for a while now. It was one of the first “simple client – smart server” devices around, and is still a great device for getting music, photos and video from a PC to a hi-fi stack and TV.

The Showcenter itself is physically located with the TV / HiFi, with a network connection back to the media server. The Showcenter has various video and audio outputs and, for the network connection back to the server, supports wired or wireless Ethernet.

Like a lot of early adopters, I originally purchased the optional wireless PCMCIA card, but that was a constant headache – the signal strength was never good. A much better option, given that I had to have a wireless connection, was to use an external wireless adapter. Of course wired Ethernet is always to be preferred to wireless, where possible.

Oh, and as an aside, here’s a top tip for the Pinnacle and, I guess, many other media server setups involving wireless: never have more than one wireless “hop”! For example I once had things set up with a wireless connection from the Showcenter, and then another wireless connection from the media server (so we hop from Showcenter to access point, then from access point on to the server) This is not a good idea. I suppose one could use ad-hoc wireless mode to have the Showcenter talk directly to the server, but that’s unlikely to be a good idea in practice. Stick to the rule of only one wireless hop.

So the Showcenter itself is a pretty much static device – no real config possible, other than the basics to establish connectivity of course, and no real “smarts”. The device is really a dedicated web-client, geared specifically towards receiving streamed video and audio. Standard codecs are embedded and generally just work as they should. All the clever stuff is provided by the server and its software. In this article I briefly look at the standard offering and some (better) alternatives.

Alternative servers?

The Showcenter itself comes with a full suite of software to provide the server functionality. Also, several open-source projects have sprung up (and some died down again later…!) to provide similar functionality.

The Pinnacle software suite is…. well, it works as advertised but with some significant aspects which bugged me. Whether they would bug someone else I cannot say. But I think they might. The functionality they provide in the standard suite is, from memory, covering these major areas:

  • Ability to add new media (video, audio and photos) to a library
  • Ability to automatically detect newly-added media
  • Ability to convert certain media types to a format supported by the hardware device
  • Ability, of course, to access the media! So to stream video or audio, and display photos to the hardware device.

The Pinnacle suite does all of those, of course. But at a price, and with some limitations. First off, the software install is big. Really really big. I have to say that it’s probably 2 years since I used it, so my memory may not be entirely accurate, but the install package is about 200MB. That’s a lot of software. Also, it installs a lot of software too, not least Microsoft’s SQL database server, and a load of (early generation) .NET stuff. I have an instinctive dislike of software packages which are bloated (their size and complexity is out of proportion to their useful functionality) and believe me this lump of code falls in to the category of “Seriously Bloated”. Also, given the complexity, beware when things go wrong – I once had their suite of software in a state where it did not work BUT you could neither re-install it nor even remove it completely. Headache time. Oh, and did I mention one significant limitation of the suite? It works on Windows only.

Of two keys area identified above, one was unreliable and the other was overrated. Identifying newly added media: unreliable. You can designate certain folders as “Watched” folders, the idea being that when you add something to that folder’s sub-hierarchy its presence is detected automatically and made available for use. Great, when it worked. Frustrating when it frequently didn’t.

As for the media conversion: overrated. Now this is subjective on my part: maybe it’s a killer feature for some, but not for me. My photos are almost always JPEG, with some other formats which the hardware also supports natively anyway. My music is MP3. My video is always DivX or MPEG-4 (or one of the compatible variants) So my media does not need conversion. In the rare cases where it did, I could use any one of a number of utilities to achieve it – I didn’t need the Pinnacle software to do it for me.

Windows only?
The fact that the Pinnacle software is Windows only is maybe not an issue if you have a single PC in the house, and it runs Windows anyway. Why would you care? Well, you wouldn’t. But if you have a little server tucked away somewhere running Linux, then you can’t use it for serving the Showcenter, at least according to Pinnacle. All the other solutions I shall look at below will run on either Linux or Windows (or a number of other operating systems too) That’s called freedom of choice. It’s a Good Thing.

Any other features?
There’s one minor feature of the Pinnacle software which, as we will see, is missing from some of the alternatives: video resume. If you stop a video’s playback you can return to the point at which you stopped it at a later time. Sounds minor, bu this is a really very useful feature in practice.

Who are the contenders?
Apart from the Pinnacle package, we’ll also take a look at Oxylbox, Swisscenter and MTPCenter.

No, not computer languages, human ones… Oxylbox is produced by a predominantly German group of developers. The software itself is in multiple languages (as are the others). MTPCenter is also produced by a German developer, while Swisscenter comes from the UK (so English). Since I am an English speaker, I evaluate these products as an English-speaker. Unfortunately I do not speak any German at all… The Swisscenter is therefore linguistically fine for me: both the web-site and the forums. Oxylbox is, well, difficult. Really quite tricky. That’s not a criticism, merely an observation that if you don’t speak German Oxylbox is hard work to get going and also the forums are of little use. MTPCenter’s web-site is also fully available in English, as well as German. And while the forums are primarily in German, the non-German sections appear quite busy and, key, the developer himself appears to frequently respond to posts in English.

Some features

Watch folders
Web server
Movie resume
Actively developed?
MS SQL Windows only Fast Built-in Yes No
None Various Implicit Various No No
MySQL Various Periodic Various No Periodically
MySQL Various Periodic Various or streamer Yes (with streamer) Yes

Database: All but Oxylbox make use of a database to store media and/or information about media. This has the advantage that a disparate selection of media (disparate in one or more ways: location, type, meta-data, etc.) are pulled together into a coherent view, making subsequent searching and selection easy. The disadvantage, of course, is that the database needs to be built and updated as media come and go (see Watch Folders) Oxylbox takes a different approach: it demands that your data is already arranged in a sufficiently structured manner in the server’s file system, and uses this structure as the implicit database. If your data is indeed already well organised, then this approach has huge merit. For example, all my photos are in folders arranged by year, and in each of those are 12 folders for each months, etc. Oxylbox just takes this as its own view too, and hence does not need to build a database of any complexity. Of course whether or not this would suit you depends on how organised your media already are.

Platform: Pinnacle is Windows-only (and as for if it’s Vista compatible – I have no idea) Tthe others can be run on multiple platforms, although for simplicity we’ll divide the world in to Windows and Linux. Since all three non-Pinnacle suites are written in PHP, they require a web-server with PHP capability (e.g. Apache, lighttpd ). They also require a MySQL database. That all sounds ominously complicated if you’re not in to server software, but what we really mean is they run on a LAMP server or a WAMP server – and you can get hold of ready-to-go bundles of software that fit that bill. Trsut me – it’s not as scary as you might think.

Watch folders: This relates to how new media are added to the server so that they are available for use. In the case of Oxylbox, just putting the data in the correct location will, implicitly, make it available for use. With the other suites, all of which make use of a database, they require a mechanism for updating that database upon new media being detected. Pinnacle has an elegant solution: folders are designated as Watch Folders and newly added media are quickly detected if placed within these locations. Unfortunately it may be elegant, but it’s also (or was two years ago) very unreliable… Swisscenter allows you to specify periodic database updates during which it will detect new media. For example, when I use Swisscenter I have it check all the media locations at 4am and update the database with any new items it finds. One can also manually kick off an update to force new media to be spotted within a few minutes.

Web server: What a minefield! Well Pinnacle is simple: no choice, you use what’s built in. The others allow choice: the most popular is (probably) Apache. However the use of a “standard” web server means lack of one feature: the “resume video where you stopped it” feature. I had a dialogue with folks on the Swisscenter forums a while back about this very subject, and the conclusion was that adding the functionality was very tricky indeed, due to the way Apache, and other web servers, stream media. MTPCenter has an optional streaming server with it, which does allow such video-resume functionality.

Actively developed: This is based on my observation of the web sites and their associated forums. Oxylbox forums appear fairly active, but the codebase itself seem pretty old now. Swisscenter is definitely active, but seems to go very much in fits and spurts – nothing for months then some new fixes or features come along. MTPCenter seems the most active of the suites. Note that there’s certainly not a required correlation between project activity and “quality” – but we all like to use something that’s not too old, if only so we can get bugs fixed and help from other people.

Which to use?
Pinnacle? Well, it mostly works, but it’s a resource hog. If you have a spare Windows PC you can dedicate to it, then it’s not so bad. But if you need it to reside on a workstation also used for other tasks then prepare to get annoyed. It’s inelegant, buggy and a resource hog.

Oxylbox? I used it for quite some time. It was tricky to install, in large part due to my lack of German-languages skills. The plug-in architecture is quite nifty, with great potential. The lack of video-resume is (for me anyway…) a negative. The project also appears to be in slow decline.

Swisscenter? I also used this for a while. It’s really pretty good. English support available from the forums, and the product feels solid and reliable. As with Oxylbox, no video-resume (although I think, but have not verified, that the Windows version does have this feature) Development is sporadic, but the project is definitely alive. Worth a try.

MPTCenter? This is the one I have least experience with, but also believe holds the most promise. The core functionality is all there and working fine, with the addition of an optional streaming server for Linux, thus facilitating video-resume. While German in origin, the project appears less exclusively German than Oxylbox! The forums and web-site seem to offer a comfortable place for non-German speakers. I’d recommend it ahead of the others, by a whisker.

Isn’t Open Source / Free Software wonderful? Three different groups of developers making freely available products which, in my opinion, all beat that offered by a commercial software developer. Try all three – I’d hate to put anyone off using any one of them. I hope my subjective views and thoughts might help guide your choice.

2 comments to Pinnacle Showcenter 1000

  • Guenter

    I’ve been reviewing all the packages you mention above myself. All in all I agree on you, especially when it comes to Pinnacles software … There’s just one point where you’re totally wrong: Oxylbox IS capable of resuming from bookmarks it generates automatically while streaming. It’s by this why Oxyl – though rather old code now – became my favourite. It works like a charm. Maybe you should give it a second chance. It’s worth it, I promise.

  • Guenter

    Thanks for that info. Do you run Oxylbox on Linux or Windows? If Linux, what’s the webserver? If they’ve got video resume working on Apache-on-Linux then I’m very interested!