Spreading iTunes beyond Apple equipment

Andrew Buss, Freeform Comment


Published/updated: August 2011

This is a story of my experiences of using non-Apple equipment to expand my use of digital media stored in an iTunes library. How this library came to be is a long story, but back in the dark ages of digital media (late 90’s and into the early part of the naughties), I was holding out against moving to iTunes. I’d started building up my library in the 90’s and didn’t want to get locked into a particular vendor.

For a while it worked – Windows Media Player was pretty good at managing the library, while there was a range of hardware available to sync to. However, it all came to a head when Microsoft made changes to the workings of Media Player and hardware. This had the effect of removing support for syncing to many recent devices, rendering my Toshiba Gigabeat to the role of an expensive doorstop (in reality it found a second life as a very expensive USB hard disk drive with a screen).

In combination with the rapid drop in hard disk drive prices, this set me on a course to get a high quality media library in place and I moved to iTunes and the iPod and AirTunes to do this. I ripped my music library in Apple Lossless format to maintain full CD quality, while I created digital copies of my DVD and now Blu-Ray libraries to have available on the move and to protect the discs from the prying and very destructive hands of my small and very technology aware daughter.

Gradually, more iPods were acquired, and then iPhones, Apple TVs and iPads until eventually there was a sprawl. Things started to become a bit of a headache, as streaming content off one PC, and a notebook at that, left the Wi-Fi saturated. Content availability was quite patchy due to the limited ability to sync iTunes libraries (content, playlists, playcount, favourites etc) between different PCs and also devices.

At this point, I thought it would be good to see just how easy it would be to be broaden out beyond iTunes and iDevices and look at how easily third party solutions could integrate and extend the experience. At about this time, I was approached by Western Digital to try out a few of their consumer storage, networking and media devices for feedback on how they worked. And so the two came together and the result on the whole was very positive, although there were a few gotchas.

This is not meant to be an in-depth review of total features or technical competence, but rather a laymans approach to how simple and easy it is to branch out beyond iTunes, and as such is my personal experience and observations of using the kit.

So to kick things off, here is a summary of the Western Digital home computing and media devices, and my top level view of how they rate (for more about them please read on):

• LiveWire data over power adapters – 8/10 (easy to setup but could be faster)
• MyPassport 500GB USB 3 hard disk drive 10/10 (small, quiet, fast)
• 1TB LiveHub Network Attached Storage box 7/10 (No USB or Wi-Fi)
• TV Live Hub with 1TB of internal storage 6/10 (No Wi-Fi, no lossless audio, large file transfers >4GB can be an issue)

Moving off Wi-Fi helped performance and predictability

Looking first at the LiveWire data plugs, these were extremely easy to set up. I literally plugged the first box into the switch port on the router, and then into the power socket. I then plugged the second box into a power socket in my study and the two connected seamlessly. The Mac in my study is the iTunes library and is responsible for streaming a lot of content. This used to hammer the Wi-Fi, as clients would be streaming via the Wi-Fi access point too. Shifting the streaming over the LiveWire devices has really helped alleviate the pressure. Streaming videos in particular are now much more reliable, particularly the hi-def ones, and it has also helped when we stream things like BBC iPlayer HD content where freezes are noticeably less.

The downsides is the plugs really have to go straight into the power socket and not an extension with surge protection, and the speed of connection is around 100Mb/s – which while still very good compared to 802.11n Wi-Fi is still slow for wired Ethernet these days. Fast file transfers of very large files still require copying to an external USB hard disk and using the good old sneakernet.

An added bonus was solving a longstanding Wi-Fi and BlueTooth conflict on my Mac. I had reverted to using a wired Mighty Mouse because heavy use of Wi-Fi would cause BlueTooth on my MacBook Pro to get jittery and as a result the BlueTooth Magic Mouse was unusable. Switching off Wi-Fi and using wired Ethernet over the LiveWire plugs solved that and means I am a happy camper again with a multi-touch mouse.

Fast, light and small – ideal to transfer large files

Which brings us to the My Passport USB 3 hard disk drive. Unfortunately I don’t have any new PCs with USB 3 ports to really push the drive, but using USB it transferred files at 35 to 40 MB/s which is comparable to my larger 3.5 inch USB 2.0 drives and a noticeable boost on my 2.5 inch portable drives which usually top out at around 25 MB/s.

Very small and very light, it ran cool and quiet and enabled large media file transfers to be done very quickly and easily. I’ve not doubt this drive could provide somewhat more performance when connected to a USB 3 interface, but it will be with the emergence of lower cost SSD drives that I expect USB 3 to really shine.

NAS boxes with Media Servers still have niggling troubles

I then set up the MyBookLive NAS box. This was very easy to do, with an intuitive graphical interface and an easy administration routine. Part of the attraction of the device was the ability to do Time Machine backups, which was the first thing I set up.

It was also the first thing I turned off a week or so later, as I couldn’t find a way to limit the size of the TimeMachine backups to a set limit for each machine. What I found was that with 3 Macs backing up constantly the disk was just filling up and not being all that useful as a general NAS storage box. With a single Mac without too much changing this would be useful, but in my case with lots of big files changing regularly across multiple machines, it was pushing it a bit.

As a file server, everything was pretty easy to set up, especially the ability to set up shared public directories that are accessible on the local network, as well as creating secure private shares for individual users. A peculiarity I had was a difficulty connecting by a Windows drive mapping to a secure share. Using the supplied SmartWare software enabled this, but it was a bit strange.

While performance is adequate, the unit did struggle as a shared file server. This is to be expected with a single disk setup, and although more advanced caching may help there is a limit as to what can be expected.

As a media server, things are generally pretty simple to set up and share, but there were some issues.

Getting the bad news out the way first, accessing the iTunes server proved a bit problematic. The embedded ID3 information in the iTunes files got misread and so finding the artist was a headache as it was giving the composer. Then iTunes itself would not play the tracks themselves. They were listed, but when double clicked would not play, and yet the same files copied to the TV Live Hub iTunes Server would play in iTunes.

The other issue is that the iTunes server is not capable of streaming to the newer Apple devices that depend on Home Sharing being set up, such as the Apple TV 2. For me this would make a world of difference, as I would no longer have to run iTunes constantly on one of the Macs to feed the Apple TV local content.

It was a different story with the Twonky media server and Windows Media Player on my PCs – the tracks, artists and albums were listed properly, even bringing in the embedded album art and the tracks could be played without problem provided it was converted from Apple Lossless format to iTunes+ format.

The content could even be seen by my networked Sony Blu-Ray drive, although it doesn’t seem to like music ripped even in iTunes+ format (256kb/s variable bit rate) which is what my “converted” lower quality mirror library is ripped at.

At the end of it all, I ended up removing the media content from the NAS drive and hosting it on the TV Live Hub, both to free up space and because the TV Live Hub is the natural place for the media to sit, rather than having to stream from NAS to media player all the time.

There were two limitations that I would like to see addressed. The first is the lack of a high speed USB 2 or 3 port for fast loading of files and content, and the other is the omission of Wi-Fi, resulting in having to place the router and NAS device close together. I was hoping to put the NAS device in an inconspicuous place, which I could do by getting more LiveWire plugs but it would be good to have the option at least.

TV Live Hub has good capabilities, but needs broader media format support.

The TV Live Hub was straightforward to set up, although it did require about 3 sequential firmware updates to get everything fully up to date.

As a music library, setting everything up was a doddle. I must admit though, I was rather surprised that the player could not handle the Apple Lossless format. The player will import the lossless files happily, but is not able to play them. I solved the issue by just converting my main library to iTunes+ quality - but that did take 4 days to complete and is not all that convenient to have to do.

I copied my iTunes+ version of the library to a USB HDD, and then connected it to the TV Live Hub and it did the rest (although I ended up arranging the folders neatly for ease of folder browsing). The interface for choosing music is straightforward and logical. However, it does require the TV to be on to browse for music. Providing a remote application to select what to play from a browser or phone would be a good step here.

When it comes to video, things are a bit more complicated to get up and going. For smaller files such as rips of DVDs, it is easy enough to copy the files to a USB key or HDD and have them import simply. Or you can copy them across the network in a short period.

However, when playing HD content such as MKV versions of Blu-Ray discs which are 10’s of gigabytes in size, copying them to a FAT drive is not possible as they are too big. exFAT can handle file sizes this big, but the TV Live Hub does not yet support this very useful media format. The reason it’s so useful is that it is supported on Windows and Mac, and so is pretty universal.

Instead I found myself having to copy from Mac to exFAT USB HDD, then go to a Windows PC and copy again to an NTFS USB HDD to copy the content. Or else copy the file over the network, but 35GB files take the best part of a day to copy even over the LiveWire. The leftfield option may be to also support, even if read-only, Apple’s HPFS file system for easy copying.

Playback of HD format files is clear and good. When streaming there was a tendency for stuttering, but this was helped by moving the streaming server onto the LiveWire data plugs to free up some Wi-Fi capacity. I did have issues, however, playing a number of standard definition DVD rips from Handbrake which were set to the original Apple TV format.

On the usability front, things are pretty clear. The remote is sensible if somewhat odd shaped and could do with a little more tactility. What stands out is a lack of volume control over HDMI when used with a PC monitor that has no easy way to change the volume without touching buttons on the monitor. This is not a problem with a TV with remote volume control although it does require using two separate remotes.

It is nice to have integration with the iPhone, where a WD app allows photos and videos to upload directly to the TV Live Hub. This works seamlessly and is in use often more convenient than connecting the iPhone to iPhoto and importing them there first. The only issue I had was a rotation problem on videos, where depending on the orientation of the phone when recording the video had a tendency to play upside down as it did not recognise the orientation setting in the file data.

Again, the lack of Wi-Fi, particularly in a media player that will likely have to live in a very specific location in living rooms or bedrooms / kitchens etc, is a major omission in this device, and one that should be easy to rectify in future versions or else this should be bundled with LiveWire plugs to enable use in rooms without data ports.

A good start with minor niggles

Overall the experience has been a good one – both of broadening my view beyond the iTunes experience and of having an alternative way of organising my media that does not rely on either Apple or Microsoft. The downsides have been that the capabilities do not yet match an enthusiast’s expectations, although they would suit many casual users’ needs.

Not supporting Apple Lossless for me is an issue, and could be overcome by building in support or allowing seamless conversion to another lossless format. I don’t really want to have a library at lower quality, not have the headache of maintaining and synchronising a second library. Even building in an automatic converter to iTunes+ would be a good step forward.

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