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Linux-fueled networked DVR adds second tuner

Nov 20, 2013  |  Rick Lehrbaum
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[Updated Nov 21] — Really Simple Software has begun accepting pre-orders for the second generation of its Linux-powered networked DVR. The new model, known as “Simple.TV by SiliconDust” and priced at $250, adds a second TV tuner and is expected to ship by the end of the year, by which time Android and iOS apps for both generations of the product will be available for free download.

Unlike normal DVRs, the Simple.TV devices lack A/V outputs and internal storage. Instead, they transcode and store broadcast TV or unencrypted cable video on external, user-supplied USB hard drives. An Ethernet port enables local or Internet access from browsers on desktop and laptop systems, and from soon-to-be-released free apps on Android and iOS tablets and smartphones.



Simple.TV versions 1 (left) and 2
(click images to enlarge)


(click to enlarge)

As illustrated in the diagram at the right, Simple.TV obtains its content from either a digital TV antenna or from an unencrypted ClearQAM cable source. It supplies live or recorded video to the rendering device — a tablet, smartphone, desktop PC, or laptop — over IP. With the addition of the optional Simple.TV Premier Service, the device’s content can be streamed beyond the confines of its local subnet, wherever Internet is available.

Other than the added tuner in the version 2 model, the two Simple.TV versions share nearly identical features and specs. The photo below shows Simple TV’s rear panel connections, which provide TV signal input, TV signal pass-through, USB, Ethernet, Ethernet pass-through, and power input.



Simple.TV rear panel connections: v1 (left) and v2
(click images to enlarge)

 
Simple.TV screenshot tour

The two sets of screenshots below show many aspects of Simple.TV’s user interface. The first set, which demonstrates web browser access, was made using the Chrome browser on a Google Nexus 10 tablet. The web interface is also available from other browsers, on Android, iOS, Windows, Mac OS, and Linux systems.


Simple.TV demo via Chrome browser on Google Nexus 7
(click images to enlarge)



Simple.TV demo via Chrome browser on Google Nexus 7
(click images to enlarge)

 

The group of screenshots below shows the UI of the Simple.TV Roku app, which provides an easy-to-use, if somewhat limited, capability.


Simple.TV demo via Roku app
(click images to enlarge)




Simple.TV demo via Roku app
(click images to enlarge)

 

In a recent email blast, Simple.TV promised that soon, “when you log onto your Simple.TV box, you’ll see a new streamlined interface [and] new account management tools.”

 
Simple.TV Premier service

Simple.TV can be used without recurring fees, albeit with some limitations. As indicated in the table below, the extra-cost “Premier Service” lets users watch Live TV and view recorded content over the Internet from anywhere in the world. The $5-per-month (or less, depending on choice of plan) service also unlocks the ability to offload content from the device and “set and forget” recordings of favorite shows, among other features.

  Basic Service Premier Service
Watch, pause, record Live TV yes
“Whole planet” remote access no yes
Automatic series recordings no yes
Pause/resume on select devices no yes
Offline viewing
(“download-to-go”)
no yes
Early access to new features no yes


 

As mentioned earlier, the capability for offline, “download-to-go” viewing of recordings listed in the table’s Premier Service column is not currently available, but will be added through upcoming firmware updates and the release of Simple.TV apps for Android and iOS devices. In addition, in its recent email blast, the company said it would also be adding the ability for users to download videos to their PCs or Macs for offline playback. Presumably, all offloading of video content will be limited to Premium Service subscribers.

 
What makes Simple.TV tick?

Simple.TV co-founder and CEO Mark Ely told us in an email that the new Simple.TV v2 DVR is built around Zenverge’s ZN200 SoC, claimed by its maker to be “the world’s most advanced quad stream content networking system-on-chip.”

As is the case with the v1 Simple.TV’s ViXS XCode 4210 SoC, the Zenverge ZN200 SoC’s integrated applications processor is based on MIPS architecture. However, while the XCode 4210 SoC contains MIPS 74K cores, the v2 model’s ZN200 SoC contains a MIPS 24K CPU core. Although MIPS 74K is newer and generally higher performance than MIPS 24K, the ZN200 supplements it with dedicated video, audio, and various transcription engines, and Simple.TV’s user interface overhead is handled externally — by remote apps on a Roku, Android, or iOS device; by a PC or laptop system’s browser; and in the cloud by Simple.TV’s associated web service.



Zenverge ZN200 block diagram and typical system architecture
(click images to enlarge)

 

As stated on its product page, “the ZN200 enables next generation digital media devices to support many transcoding functions with its powerful TransAll transcoding engine. It also enables high quality HD/SD encoding and supports many applications on its powerful host processor.”

Key features listed by Zenverge for the ZN200 SoC are tabulated below, although we don’t know how many of these capabilities are being leveraged by the Simple.TV v2 design:

  • Quad Stream HD Transcoder SoC or Co-processor
  • Multi-format video encode and transcode engine:
    • H.264 up to L4.2@HP, MPEG-2 up to HL@MP
    • Transcoding — MPEG2 <--> H.264
    • Transrating — HD bitrates or lower
    • Transcaling — HD resolutions or lower
  • Multi-format audio encoder and transcoder
  • Transcryption of CA/DRM
  • Multiple system interfaces

In the new Simple.TV model, “we are running two 1080p ATSC MPEG2 video streams in, and getting six H.264 streams out,” explains Ely. “It’s a powerful platform. Our middleware runs on the chip (JavaScript on nodeJS) and handles the DVR scheduling, video stream packaging, and communication with our web service.”

Earlier this year, Ely informed us that Simple.TV uses an automatic repackaging routine that enables encoded H.264 recordings to be transferred in MP4 format for playback on PCs or mobile devices. He also confirmed that Simple.TV runs an embeddded Linux operating system, and uses JFS as its filesystem format.

 
Further information

Orders for the new, $250 “Simple.TV by SiliconDust” model (aka Simple.TV v2) can currently be placed on the Simple.TV website, with shipment promised “before the end of the year.” The $150 Simple.TV v1 model is available immediately. When purchased with the device, a Premier Service subscription adds $50 for one year or $150 for “lifetime” use. For purchasers of the devices without a lifetime or 1-month Premier Service subscription, the service can be added later for $60 per year, or $150 for lifetime use. The Simple.TV Android app is expected to become available on Google Play “by the end of the month,” with the iOS version hitting the Apple App Store “by the end of the year.” More details are available on the Simple.TV website.
 

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