Wireless Media Shenanigans

This is a two part post. The second part was written several weeks after the first. They describe my attempt to get video playback of iTunes movies and TV programmes using a wireless hard disk.

Part 1: Pre Holiday

I wrote about the Seagate Wireless Plus just over a year ago. Since then I’ve used it occasionally, and on the whole, it has performed well. Problems of dropped connections and occasional flakiness seem to have been fixed by various firmware and software upgrades… Until IOS 8, which has somehow interfered with the playback of DRM content from iTunes. The selection of a film or TV programme from within the media manager correctly opens Safari for playback, but loading never completes and the movie never plays.

Unfortunately, when this first happened I didn’t realise it was a software problem. I assumed it was a hardware fault, and since I wanted to have videos on an upcoming trip, I decided to buy the LaCie Fuel. It’s basically the same thing as the Seagate, but the 2 TB version was a few pounds cheaper on Amazon.

Of course, when this turned up it made no difference, but it took me quite a while to discover the problem was IOS incompatibility. I didn’t find anything in the support pages, or FAQ or knowledgebase—just the usual blurb about “expanding iPad capacity”. It was by chance when I checked if there was different media player for the LaCie Fuel. There is: LaCie Media. And there is a note, dated 29 September 2014, in the version details about the problem with IOS 8. The same message appears on the Seagate Media, none of which is much help to any users who already got the software. It’s altogether a piss-poor performance by Seagate and LaCie who don’t appear to have done a very good job testing the IOS 8 betas, which have been around since June.

Occasionally, when I tried to play content using Seagate Media, I got a message that the format was incompatible and to try another media player. So I wasted some more time and money on other apps: AcePlayer, GoodPlayer, PowerPlayer, OPlayerHD—none of which worked so I’m not bothering to provide links as I have no reason to recommend any of them.

At this point, it occurred to me—perhaps, rather belatedly—that since the problem was something to do with Apple DRM. After a few searches I found TunesKit. This claims to create DRM-free versions of iTunes videos. It was on sale, but still a nickel short of 45 bucks. However, there’s a trial version that deDRM’s the first five minutes of any file. I tried it on an episode of Castle. It worked perfectly, so I coughed up the $45.


At this point, I will make it clear that I am not using this software to pirate copyright material and neither should you. I have paid a fee to watch these videos, and I being prevented from doing so by incompetence on someone else’s part.


TunesKit is pretty straightfoward to use. When you launch the app, it will start iTunes. If iTunes is already running, TunesKit asks permission to relaunch iTunes. I haven’t experimented to see whether iTunes can be used while TunesKit is doing its thing. I didn’t see anything in manual, but there are some videos that I didn’t bother to watch because it’s not that complicated.

TunesKit

You can add files using the dropdown to select content, or drag files from your iTunes media folder using Finder. This is what I did because it’s a lot quicker to grab multiple files for batch processing. Specify the output folder, click “convert” and wait. It took about 7 minutes to process an episode of Castle on my iMac, which is a high spec late–2012 model.

With great anticipation, I copied the first episode to the LaCie Fuel and started LaCie Media. Everything was great for about five minutes and then I started to get pauses in the playback. Not very long, but the screen would freeze for no more than a second (if that) and then playback would continue. Aargh! I played around with settings without much luck. Disconnecting LaCie from external wifi helped a bit; the pauses were farther apart. Eventually, I found a comment in the manual that jerky playback was a symptom if trying to play HD files. The recommendation was to get SD versions. If I’d wanted fucking SD versions, I would have bought them in the first place. It’s another piss-poor performance by LaCie. The specifications clearly indicate HD video streaming is possible. Supposedly, you just have to limit the maximum numbers of users to 3 instead of 5.

The IOS 7 compatible version of Seagate Media didn’t have this problem when streaming iTunes content. So perhaps, this will go away when they finally issue an update.

Anyway having […] managed to […] watch an entire […] episode of Castle with […] pauses, I fired up Handbrake. I don’t know much about using Handbrake, but I can get it to read an HD video and convert it to an iPad-compatible format. Unfortunately, it takes much longer than 7 minutes to process an episode of Castle. But it does seem to have done the trick.

My LaCie Fuel now contains two copies of lots of videos: one in original HD and one in 1280 px width for the iPad—just as well I got the 2 TB version.

Part 2: Post Holiday

Well, it turned out that I was wrong that the hesitation had been fixed. When I started to watch programmes on holidays, I discovered that playback still occasionally paused. It took longer for the first hesitation to show and they were less frequent, but still there. Fortunately, the disruption was not bad enough that programmes were unwatchable, but still.

Since the original conversion before our holiday, there has been an update to both IOS 8 and Handbrake. So I did some more tests and converted two episodes of The Big Bang Theory, one using the iPad preset provided with Handbrake (which uses anamorphic encoding and another where it was not used. Both presets set an image size of 1280 x 720 px. I’ve watched both episodes: there was one very small pause in the iPad version and none in the other. The previously converted programmes still don’t play back smoothly; so it looks like the update to Handbrake does something that ameliorates the pausing problem. The converted files in the newer version are smaller than those from the previous version.

In fairness, I should say that programmes I captured from BBC iPlayer using Get iPlayer Automator do play back without interruption. But it is a major pain to watch iTunes DRM protected content using the LaCie Fuel or Seagate Wireless Plus. Two conversions are required and each hour of content takes about an hour to prepare. There is no sign of updated version of either media manager; it seems to be essentially the same software anyway.

I can’t recommend the LaCie Fuel until the playback problem is resolved.

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