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  • Sage TV on the Windows Home Server


    Dave
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    The promise of Windows Home Server is to centralize all of your media, files, and important things in your life. Through a huge library of add-ins and other programs, WHS has mostly come through on that promise to make all of your digital life centralized in one location. HTPC users have leveraged the power of WHS to point their software of choice to the network shares or use UPnP to stream music, video and pictures to devices around the house. For long time HTPC users, the introduction of a WHS into the home network allows people to make sense out of disparate ways of storing data and accessing media on networked computers.

     

    As with everything in life, the same gadget is never used exactly the same way in two individual's hands. The HTPC is no exception as there are multiple choices out there for the aspiring user. One of the best choices is Windows Media Center (WMC) which comes bundled free with Vista and Windows 7. Through advanced DVR functionality coupled with the ability to play and display multiple media types and the ability to use an XBox 360 as an extender, WMC is a fantastic choice for HTPC owners who want to have a wide range of functions with a slick UI and Cable Card support. As a Windows Home Server user though, having two "always on" boxes can seem like a waste of time and resources, especially if you don't need Cable Card or don't own a 360. Going back to theme of "centralizing your life", WHS users can look to another program to provide DVR services and use either a dedicated extender or HTPC to stream content to your TV. SageTV does all of that right on your Windows Home Server, Mac, Linux, or Windows machines.

     

    SageTV is a Java based DVR program that also plays multiple audio and video codecs and containers. Using either the HD-100 or HD-200 extender manufactured by SageTV, you can control the software on your WHS from multiple set top boxes across your network. There is also a client version of the software available if you have an existing HTPC as well as a place-shifter client for watching your content on the go.

     

    All in all, SageTV is a very flexible solution for multiple platforms. Many sites cover SageTV in depth. The first stop for any aspiring SageTV user is Brent Evans' site Geektonic. He has a number of articles and how-tos that cover most of the functions of SageTV. After getting an introduction there, head on over the official SageTV forums to get a better idea about how other people use it and what kinds of customization is available.

     

    This being a Windows Home Server site, I'd like to focus on why a WHS user would benefit by using Sage over other PVR programs out there. First of all, the most important thing to realize is that no program is perfect for any user. There are always issues with your own implementation of a certain program where you end up needing that one function to get fixed in order for it to be "perfect". Once you understand and accept that, you can start getting into finding the program that best approximates your use case scenario. You really need to know what you want your PVR/HTPC program to do for you before you dive into really picking which way to go. For the WHS user, Sage offers the following advantages over other programs:

     

    -Sage runs on an already "always on" computer in your house. If you're the typical WHS user, your WHS is on 24/7. If you schedule recordings on your HTPC/PVR, it also will typically be on most of the day, if not all day long. With SageTV running on your WHS, you are able to have everything running on one computer. SageTV runs as an Add-In and can be turned on and off via the WHS Console from any client machine on your network.

     

    -Because it is on your WHS, you have a shared guide among all of your extenders/clients. One of the most common functions that WMC users with multiple WMC machines spread out over the network want is a shared guide. Sage on the WHS allows you to have a shared guide so that you can schedule recordings from any room in the house with an extender/client.

     

    -All recording is done in your storage pool. I have my recordings go to the "Recorded TV" folder that was added by default in Power Pack 2 to house recordings moved to your WHS from your WMC machines. Because they are recorded on the WHS locally, there is no need to schedule the recorded tv files to move to your WHS.

     

    -Any supported tuner that has a driver for Windows Server 2003 or XP can be added to your WHS to pool your tuners.

     

    -Sage has a fantastic extender model. The HD-100 and HD-200 extenders provide a great front-end to control the entire experience from a set top box connected to your TV. The extenders have fantastic codec and container support, so there is no need to go through the transcoding gymnastics inherent in using an Xbox360 as a WMC extender. The Sage boxes are quiet and powerful and can operate as a standalone box if needed. If you have an existing HTPC, there is client software that provides the same functionality as the HD-100/200.

     

    Obviously SageTV isn't all sunshine and roses with puppy dogs smiling at happy babies. There are a few issues with Sage that would need to be considered.

     

    -The Default UI is atrocious. Heck, as an admitted Sage lover I won't even consider using the Default UI unless I have to for some reason. There are a number of different ways to skin the UI through the UI replacement SageMC. With SageMC installed, you can add other specific replacements for the TV and Movie functions of Sage. TV Explorer allows you to aggregate your recorded tv with your imported tv (read that as stuff you get from other sources like Bit Torrent you filthy pirate) into one common listing of shows. Sage Movie Wall provides a fantastic skin for fanart and covers to be displayed for all of your movie files. Here are some screenshots.

     

    Default UI (I use this so infrequently I actually have to think a minute as to where each of the menu items will take me.

     

    The Default UI - Not so great

     

    SageMC (The menu items “My TV” through “My Menu” are the default for SageMC.  You can add submenus to take you to various other add-ins or interior replacements.  This is a great way to test out new things that the awesome developers come up with without ruining the WAF.)

     

    SageMC

     

    TV Explorer (By selecting “TV” in my customized SageMC, it takes you to TV Explorer)

     

    TV Explorer

     

    Sage Movie Wall (By selecting “MOVIES” in my customized SageMC, it takes you to SMW)

     

    Sage Movie Wall

     

    -No built-in Cable Card support. If you're an Over the Air only person like me, who cares, but there is definitely a need for some out there to get premium cable services on their PVR. There are ways to get premium cable/dish/direct tv onto your Sage server, but they involve using either an HD-PVR, a modded satelite box, and IR blasters to get that into Sage.

     

    -Did I mention the ugly Default UI?

     

    There are numerous other advantages and disadvantages to picking Sage over some other HTPC software. If you're interested in trying out Sage for yourself, head over to the official site and download a trial of the software to see if you like it. Before you do that though, I would highly recommend reading through Geektonic and the Sage forums to figure out how to customize it to meet your needs. If you’re willing to get your hands dirty and the functionality of Sage meets your needs, it is worth the effort to try it out and modify it to look good.

     

    If you have any questions, feel free to ping me on twitter, I'm @ohpleaseno. In my next post, I'll go over the implementation of Sage in my house. If you have any ideas about other things to post regarding Sage or HTPCs with regards to using WHS, let me know and I'll do my best to cover them.

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    Haha, I agree a thousand times over about the fugly UI. I think going forward SageTV needs to simplify things a bit, there are too many steps involved with setting things up, installing stvis, etc... Take a look at for instance what XBMC and Media Browser has, where there is a plugin repository. SMW is a great improvement, but once again a lot of steps that can be daunting to the average person. There is definitely some promise with SMM on the way, as I think this could really start to bring SageTV a bit more mainstream
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    I love WHS and I have been using it since the beta - but it has one huge flaw and that is the inability to backup the system partition. I am using Sage on WHS and i recently had a failure of the system drive on WHS. If I was running Sage on a client PC I would have simply down a WHS restore and been up and running in no time. With WHS I had to reinstall the OS - which means reinstalling drviers for all of my tuners, IR blasters, firewire, etc. and then reinstalling Sage. For some reason WHS would not allow me to do a server reinstall so I had to buy an extra hard drives and manually copy the 2.5TB of files that I had on my server from old hard drive(s) to new hard drives. This meant that recovering from a failed disk took a few days rather than an hour or less. Being able to backup the system partition is more of an issue when you have apps like SageTV.
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    Wayner, I could be wrong, but I thought that if you had a drive the was not a part of your storage pool you could use it to back up your system partition. I haven't done this, so maybe it's not as automated and convenient as the client backup, but I think it is a feature built into WHS.
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    @mvanzante - I don't think it works that way. You can now backup your shared volumes to a drive not part of your storage pool - and I do this to make off-site backups on external hard drives. You may be able to backup your PC backups although I think this requires and addin. But you can't back up your C: system volume.
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    Wayner, exactly the reason I run a seperate SageTV server outside of the WHS realm. Although it's a nice concept and cuts out some power consumption, my IT background says Redundancy! Since SageTV is hooked up to 2 other TV's as well as 3 computers, the WAF would instantly disappear if I had to wait 2 or 3 days to get to rebuild the WHS. As it stands right now, the SageTV server is backed up nightly to the WHS, and I have 2 1tb drives in it set to a RAID 1 config. If the Sage box dies I can restore it from the WHS after a couple of replacement parts, and if the WHS dies I can live without it for a few days while rebuilding. Both at the same time and it's havoc.
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