So I’ve been getting this question a lot over the past several months: Why Project Entangle? Why would I go about writing a DVR?
On the surface it’s easy to think I’m crazy (in addition to being inkoherent). After all, there’s the Tablo OTA DVR (in fact I’ve had one since the Indiegogo days, although it’s been gathering dust for a couple years). Plex has added DVR support. And the fine folk at SiliconDust now have a DVR for their HDHomerun devices too. And there’s TiVo. Having been affiliated with them for close to two decades, I have a variety of them from Series2s to Roamios.
The answer, of course is that having spent a decade in the industry architecting and designing DVRs for others, I’ve accumulated a rather lengthy wish list, some of which are collected below. While some of the existing solutions do indeed address these issues, no single solution addresses them all.
And there’s the overriding reason for Project Entangle: Because I Can. Those of you who prefer to work on your car rather than take it into a shop, or bake a cake rather than picking one up at a bakery, should be able to relate to this. (I can’t figure out how or why my car works. And while I enjoy baking, the last cake took two days to craft. Hence Project Entangle. I may not always know why it works either, but at least I designed it. And I’m fairly certain it’s calorie free.)
There’s also the bit about having clients that run into some of these same problems. For some odd reason clients find it reassuring that you’ve failed at doing something several times before making it work. Especially if it turns out that one of those failures fits their needs to tee.
And of course there’s the last reason. Because. Just because it can be done.
Mike’s DVR Wish List (aka the Project Entangle feature set)
- There are never enough tuners. The TiVo Bolt tops out at four OTA tuners, which is woefully insufficient if you want to record primetime ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX, CW and PBS. Let alone a few other local stations.
- Everything should be recorded to one box. Distributed storage is fine for archival purposes, but really I want everything accessible from one box. This is both because I don’t want a bunch of boxes on 24/7, as well as from the practicality of Just One Box (with lots of storage).
- Highly reliable recording. This used to be a mantra of TiVo boxes. If you told it to record something, it would be there. There was a trust between the user and the box.
This goes beyond following the inevitable program guide changes as broadcasters tweak their schedules. It includes all the behind-the-scenes stuff ensuring your recording reliably gets from the antenna to the hard drive. No dropped bits. No stalling. No crashing. This is easy to do if you’re recording one or two shows at a time. When you get to ten, things become a bit more challenging.
It also means handling the vagaries of OTA television. For example, something will inevitably happen to impair your reception when the pilot episode of the most anticipated series of the season is airing. It could be atmospheric effects, a lightning storm, or a rat that’s decided your antenna is an interesting piece of gym equipment. Fortunately, many times episodes will repeat (even within the week), and you want your DVR to record all of them. Just in case. From multiple antennas if you have them.
- Low power consumption. Just One Box is actually a corollary of this. Koherence may be a business that can write off its electricity, but for anything on 24/7 power consumption is key. Project Entangle components are selected to minimize power consumption, from the choice of CPU and hard drive to the DC-DC power supply.
- Finding shows Mike’s Way. Season passes, wish lists, and other searches are all fine and good. But inevitably there’ll be some method of finding a program that your DVR doesn’t support, and you’re left wondering why no one’s implemented it.As I’m writing this, the fall TV season has just started, which means there are a ton of series premieres. Which are the good ones? Who knows. Wouldn’t it be nice to just record all of them, then toss the ones that aren’t good later? Guess what feature made it to Entangle just a couple weeks before the premieres began?
- Optimized for OTA. This means a number of things. One of the challenges of OTA is that you may need multiple antennas since the broadcast towers are in different directions. Or you may suffer from the “six foot anomaly,” where an antenna positioned in one spot receives a set of stations well but fails on some others. Meanwhile an antenna positioned six feet away and pointed in the same direction receives those other stations (but oddly not the one the first antenna received so well). Or you may be truly unlucky and, over the span of an hour, changing atmospheric conditions cause a station that was best received on antenna A to be best received on antenna B. There’s some magic that can be worked to combine the signals from both antennas to get the cleanest possible recording.
- Trick modes while streaming. I can’t emphasize this enough. When watching broadcast television, you need fast-forward and fast-rewind. It’s because of those things called commercials. Sure, you could try to guess where the commercial break ends and scrub there, but you’ll more than likely be off and keep jumping around. Besides, by fast-forwarding through commercials you can stop and watch the good ones (or, at least, stop to watch that movie trailer that looks interesting.)
- Live transcoding. What gets recorded to the hard drive should be the bits as they were broadcast (filtered only to the extent that you want to record on program from the MPTS). That way you maintain the highest quality (and are able to run statistical analyses on the broadcast years later…ok most people don’t care about that). However, many devices don’t accept broadcast MPEG2, so transcoding is required, typically to H.264 and HLS format.
- Adaptive bitrate streaming. This isn’t really required if you’re just watching TV inside your home (barring the occasional hiccup that will be induced by the microwave or your dog thinking your router’s antennas are a new chew toy). But if you want to watch your shows while sipping a mocha at Starbucks, adaptive bitrate is a must.
So there you have it folks. The Why’s of Project Entangle. If you have a wish list of features missing from your DVR or streaming service, send them my way. Who knows – maybe they’ll get Entangled.