Thursday, February 24, 2011

Boxee / XBMC

Today I'm going to give you a casual review of two options to help you give up on cable or satelite tv:  Boxee and XBMC.

Before we begin you will need:

A) A pc connected to your tv.  A lowpower netbook-like pc is fine as long as it has a video card that can accelerate flash and hd video.  A Media Center remote will be helpful as well.
B) About $200 to buy a separate proprietary box. (Boxee Box)

Option A is what I'm talking about today since I've never used a Boxee Box personally, but it's a valid option if you don't have a pc for under your tv or don't care to build one.

XBMC and Boxee are very similar pieces of software.  Boxee is actually based off of XBMC.  Boxee uses the bas of an older than current version of XBMC and tries to add social networking features to it.

 Above is a photo of the main menu for Boxee.  As you can see there is a Friends section, a queue for watching later, a tv shows section, a section for movies, an apps section for using addons, and a file system browser.  Boxee works pretty well for using a remote to interact with your pc and watch videos, but the sections above, at least for me personally, don't work very well for my needs.  First problem, the queue (watch later).

The "watch later" section works well enough for a reminder section if you have so much content that you don't remember what you have, but there's one glaring flaw:  there is no playlist feature to watch shows back-to-back without having to pick up the remote.  Even for music, which the mockup picture posted above doesn't show a section for, doesn't have an editable playlist feature for listening to music.  Fortunatly Boxee is at least smart enough to play a whole folder when you start a song from it instead of just one song and stopping.

Next problem:  the TV and Movie sections.  These sections try to do something good by showing you a browsable menu of boxart and pictures to better identify your video files.  The problem comes in when you don't name your files to an exact specification.  There have been quite a few times where I've gone to start a kids movie and the boxart is some random horror film like Willard or the Shining.  Because of various problems with the fancy boxart browsing attempt that these sections use I mainly stick to the file browser.  You can also view streaming video through the TV section, but this is hit and miss.  Since HULU has blocked Boxee and started charging fees for most of their content, a lot of the browsable streaming video through this section is either blocked or a short preview.

The file menu works well enough.  You can put shortcuts to various folders at the root so you don't have to keep clicking and clicking to find your files.  All you have to do is use the arrow keys on your remote to highlight a file and click ok a couple of times to start playing.

Apps:  These are what make Boxee more than just a fancy file browser.  With various addon apps that you can browse and install right from within Boxee you can view videos from various websites like PBS, Youtube, Clicker, etc.  Very convenient.  One of the better addons is VUDU.  This is a pay per view and/or pay to purchase streaming video service.  I've used it a few times and, other than some idiosycrasies with volume levels and inability to stream HD video the last time I looked (though widescreen video is still doable thankfully) it works pretty well.


Recently I've started to play with XBMC instead of Boxee.  Boxee works great, but so far it seems like they've almost abandoned their PC software since their Boxee Box set-top device was released.  

XBMC has all of the features that Boxee has minus the social networking stuff that doesn't seem practical anyway so I won't go into specifics unless necessary.  There are a few advantages to XBMC though.

1.  Updated more frequently
2.  Better video codec support
3.  More addons

With XBMC you have the option to pick your own themes or create your own.  There are also more addons to choose from since XBMC has been around a lot longer.  I've also noticed that any of the videos that I had a problem with in Boxee work just fine in XBMC version 10.  The only things you lose out on with XBMC are social networking features (useless) and some streaming video integration.  HULU wont work at all in XBMC (at least that I'm aware of) compared to partial function in Boxee.  There are a few other built-in streaming sites in Boxee that I haven't found replacements for in XBMC, though this doesn't necessarily mean they aren't there.  I may just not have found them yet.  Only other small problem I've found is that my remote doesn't seem to work quite as well in XBMC.  One major problem, at least for me, is that you can't use the arrow keys to choose letters from an onscreen keyboard in XBMC like you can in Boxee.  This might be a dealbreaker for me at some point.

Conclusion:  XBMC is better "under the hood" for most things, but Boxee, in general, has a better user interface and integration with a media center remote.  Ideally I would like to see Boxee update itself based on the newest release of XBMC and possibly remove the social networking features.  Buy the Boxee Box if you just want to stream content from online and from your file server located in some other room:  Boxee Box by D-Link

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Five Firefox Addons to Keep You Secure

Here is a list of firefox addons that I consider mandator to stay safe while browsing the web.

1.  Adblock plus - I like getting adclicks as much as the next blogger, but ads are still a risk for security and privacy.  On the more benign end of the spectrum, ads will place tracking cookies on your system that help them track what you are browsing for and serve ads catered to your viewing habbits.  This could be a privacy and security problem if you don't want people to know that you have been to certain sites. 

The more dangerous side of ads are the ones that serve up malware in attempts to get information such as login information, email addresses, bank account numbers, etc.  Even sites that are otherwise trustworthy can be hit if they put too much trust into their ad networks.

2.  BetterPrivacy - Adobe Flash, everyone uses it.  Did you know that it stores cookies and other data in your firefox profile?  This data won't be erased by deleting history and cookies and other private data through Firefox.  BetterPrivacy will keep track of this information for you and ask if you want to delete it whenever you close firefox.  The only downside I have seen to this so far is that some flash games that have a save-game function will store this information in this manner.  You lose your saved game information if you erase it.

3.  NoScript - Javascript, java, and flash are the most dangerous pieces of Firefox or any other browser.  They are what let web sites pull data from you or make your browser perform actions such as reading data from your firefox profile or even other locations on your computer.  NoScript is a javascript/java/flash/etc. whitelister.  You can use this addon to only allow the running of these types of code on the sites you trust.

4.  Scroogle SSL - Don't trust Google?  Don't like the idea that they keep a log of your searches for 18 months and tie it to your ip address?  Scroogle to the rescue.  Scroogle is a Google scraping website that will run your searches for you.  So no matter what you search for, it will all get tied to the ip address assigned to Scroogle.  Scroogle deletes their logs within 48 hours.  Another problem:  You probably don't want anyone else to be able to sniff your web searches.  Your ISP, your place of work, your school, they can all see what you search for as it is sent through their hardware to Google.  Scroogle SSL fixes both problems.  It doesn't look quite as fancy as Google, but with this search bar addon you can change the search box at the top right to search through an SSL encrypted version of Scroogle instead of an unencrypted Google

5.  Web Of Trust - Web of Trust is an addon that ties you to a database of sites previously visted by other users using this addon and tells you how trustworth the website has been ranked.  You can submit your own ratings for sites, but the most important part is that this addon will give you a full page warning that you must click through before allowing you to visit a site that has been deemed unsafe.

I hope you find this information useful.  If anyone has any other suggestions for privacy and security protection in firefox please leave your suggestions in the comments.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Sabnzbd+ News Reader

If you've ever used Usenet (nntp, newsgroups, whatever you want to call it) to download movies, music, tv shows, or other large files you probably know how much of a hassle it is with a standard news reader.  Having to download all of the seperate parts of each seperate rare file of each item you want to download and decode them from yenc and then unrar and/or use a program to join them and then have to search for a par file to repair missing files is a pain in the butt.  NZB files helped a great deal with this.  These were a single file that told a news reader application which articles on usenet to download to get all of a specific file(s) you were looking for.  You still needed a news reader that would accept these files and you had to load them manually.  You also still had to join and/or unrar the files once you downloaded them.  Still a pain, but not for long...

Today we have Sabnzbd+.  This oddly named application is an open source "fully automated" news reader written in python and compatible with windows, linux, and mac os x.  This application will take some getting used to if you are a seasoned veteran of standard news readers like Forte Agent or xnews.  This application has a webpage interface.  It can be accessed locally or remotely.  You just tell it which usenet server or servers (it can use more than one) to use and feed it an nzb file and it will download the files for you as well as join and unrar them for you.  If there are missing or corrupted files it will grab par files to repair it for you as well.  It also supports ipv6 connections unlike many traditional news readers.  This can be very useful since there are a few fairly fast and free ipv6 news servers available if you can connect.  It can also integrate with nzbmatrix if you have an account, making finding nzb files even easier.

Conclusion:  If you use Usenet, you need Sabnzbd+.  The only thing it can't do is read text posts from usenet, but who does that anymore anyway?


Monday, February 7, 2011

Ninite - Easy Software (Re)Install


How often do you reinstall Windows on your PC or other people's PCs?  How often do you have to go looking for updated versions of your favorite software?  With Ninite you don't have to take hours finding and updating all of your favorite software on each reinstall.  Ninite lets you make a custom installer that will always grab the latest versions of the software you choose.

Software examples include:
- Flash
- Java
- Web Browsers like Firefox and Chrome
- Video players like VLC
- uTorrent
- 7zip
- much more

Not only will your custom installer grab and install the latest version of your favorite software and utilities, the installer is preconfigured to remove any toolbars and other spam that may be installed by default.  Try it for yourself and see how much time you can save.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Axantum AxCrypt

I've talked previously about encryption using Truecrypt.  Truecrypt is a very powerful encryption suite, but it has one flaw:  You can't encrypt single files or folders in place.  Axantum AxCrypt is here to fill in this hole in our encryption needs.

AxCrypt is a program for all current versions of windows.  It adds a menu to the rightclick menu for files and folders.

As you can see from the picture above you can either encrypt files or folders in place or create a self decrypting copy to send to someone who may not have AxCrypt installed.

AxCrypt uses the AES encryption algorithm and 128bit keys to make sure your data stays as secure as your encryption key.

Anyone use anything else for encryption?  Suggestions are always appreciated in the comments.