Back To It

by Justin Sevakis,

To you, dear reader, I never left. However this week I moved apartments, which is the single most unpleasant way one can spend a week. I also ran out of time packing, and so rather than have the movers schlep everything I had (which would've been the smart course of action), I ended up spending 15 hours hauling bags of assorted crap down and then back up two flights of stairs. The next day I was so sore I couldn't even stand up straight.

It will be worth it. The new place is very nice, but I am about to collapse from the exhaustion of getting everything back up and running. Let's get this done. I have furniture coming tomorrow. It requires assembly.

Michael asks:

I recently went back and read your ANN article on the media center you (painstakingly) built. I also recall that in an ANNCast episode you mentioned doing research into getting your DVD collection digitized for access from anywhere. My question is, did you ever do this? If not, just out of curiosity, what sort of setup do you currently use to consume your media (be it streaming, optical, etc)?

A few years ago, as Michael points out, I realized that between DVDs, Blu-rays, legal streaming and my massive pile of digital fansubs, it would sure be nice to have one box that could play literally anything I threw at it. I then spec'ed out and built my very own Home Theater PC, and wrote an article about the experience and all of the requisite software. I won't bother linking to the article, as it's now badly dated. As Windows Media Center supposedly offered the ability to play ripped DVDs, I briefly toyed with the idea of putting literally every disc I owned on a massive hard drive or network volume.

That was five years ago, and a lot has changed since then. For one thing, Windows Media Center itself has been retired by Microsoft. It was a decent system but always felt a little buggy and weird. No matter what add-ons I installed or what codecs and configurations I tinkered with under the hood, I was never able to play everything with that interface, or any remote control-friendly interface. iTunes purchases were a problem, as were MP4 or MKV files with multiple subtitle or audio tracks. Heck, even Hulu and Netflix won't play in full resolution (or with 5.1) on a PC. Worse, I was constantly having to install software updates, tinker with drivers, and everything else that comes with having a full Windows PC around. I squandered hours on that thing that I really, really wish I had back. Frankly, it just didn't work well, no matter what I did. (Oh, and that ripped DVD playback function never seemed to work for me at all, nixing that idea.)

In that five years, legal streaming has gotten much more ubiquitous and organized, and set-top boxes have come a long way. Personally, my setup of choice is now two set-top boxes: an AppleTV and a Raspberry Pi. The AppleTV is by far the best and most compatible device out there for legal streaming, serving up Crunchyroll, Hulu Plus, Netflix, YouTube and iTunes with the best couch-friendly interface I've yet experienced, and will also stream other video sources from an iPhone or iPad over the network, which opens up Funimation, Anime Sols and Amazon. The Raspberry Pi (running RaspBMC, a custom Linux variant built around the excellent XBMC software) plays files over the network, and also features a huge library of hacked-together apps that allow you to explore a ton of weird media floating around the internet. I put my massive collection of old unlicensed fansubs on a big USB hard drive and plugged it into the network share on my router. It's pretty great.

Before I got those I experimented with a feature-rich LG "Smart" BD player with a lot of apps and the ability to watch files over a network, as well as Boxee, an oddly shaped set-top box that seemed to hold a lot of promise. Both turned out to be massive, massive failures -- inexplicably buggy, kludgy pieces of garbage that regularly locked up so badly I had to physically yank the power cord from the wall. As if to prove electronics manufacturers can't make a nice interface to save their lives, the incompetent Boxee team was bought out by Samsung, in order to improve their line of SmartTVs.

So now I have the AppleTV and the Raspberry Pi. Those two boxes, plus a bottom-of-the-line Panasonic BD player with no internet hooked up, comprise my media playback gear. There are a few holes -- the Raspberry Pi can't handle DVD playback (yet), and 10-bit fansubs are a no-go (but I barely have any of those). Imperfect as it is, this is the closest I've yet gotten to the dream of "one box to rule them all." Frankly, there isn't any box that can play everything well, no matter how electronics manufacturers claim otherwise. But depending on what you need yours to do, a modern game console might be enough for most people. If you're not a gamer, the AppleTV is pretty much the best set-top appliance I've ever bought (although a new one is rumored to be coming).

I'm still tinkering, though. I plan on adding an HDHomerun to watch live TV over XBMC. Once my new Mac Pro arrives I will attempt to run XBMC on that machine, and stream the whole screen over AppleTV, controling it with an iPhone app, to play those pesky 10-bit fansubs and DVDs from other regions. Because until I can get every single piece of media under the sun on my TV without reaching for a keyboard, my home theater setup IS NOT PERFECT.

Matthew asks:

I've been watching the new Hajime no Ippo series on Crunchyroll recently, and it got me to thinking. Much as I loved the show when it was released on DVD as Fighting Spirit, I know it didn't help the company's fiscal solvency. That said, it seems to me that series like Fighting Spirit or Big Windup have enough of a fan base to make a digital release of their sequel series through services like iTunes or Amazon Instant Video profitable. Is there something preventing series that wouldn't be successful on DVD from being released for purchase digitally, especially series that have already been distributed through services like Crunchyroll?

There are a few big problems with trying to license an anime JUST for paid download. The first, probably biggest, issue is that nearly all content producers, Japanese and otherwise, still insist that paid downloads should have some sort of DRM on them, and that pretty effectively restricts you to just iTunes (which uses its own FairPlay protection, playable on only Apple devices and Windows PCs) and Amazon (which uses Windows Media DRM, useful only on Windows PCs and a bunch of portable devices nobody bought).

That restriction isn't going anywhere, as much as we might hate it. Between those two stores, Apple won't even take most subtitled content, and while Amazon will work, there aren't that many people downloading their anime on the service, so it's doubtful that they'd sell enough downloads to really make the venture worthwhile. Especially when people can just stream it for free on Crunchyroll.

I'm a big Ippo fan, and I'd love to see the whole franchise back in print in the US. However, it's a long, long series, and we all know how sports anime is basically a non-starter among fans here already. Honestly, your best hope is a cheap boxed set release from a small boutique US publisher, a la Discotek or Anime Sols.

Ben asks:

I was wanting to know why is it that in japan limited editions in general are both more limited(more collectable) and come with much better add-on content. I am an avid buyer of limited editions, and signed copys, sound tracks, art books, figures if Limited, and any other merchandise that is of a limited edition/limited collectable nature revolving around anime and manga. I realize not to many people are like me. but i just feel kind of annoyed.

There are two reasons why American-made limited editions are so much less grand affairs than their Japanese counterparts. The first is that compared to Japanese fans, Americans are cheap. Really, really cheap. Have you seen those boxed sets being offered by Aniplex USA that are just imports? The one for the new Madoka Magica: Rebellion movie includes a gatefold box, special booklet, a soundtrack CD, a bonus Blu-ray (containing what, we don't know!), and a poster! And that's one of the less ridiculous limited edition releases!

That's going for $95. And while Aniplex USA is just fine with only selling a few of those to Americans, the other publishers aren't going for that model, they'd much prefer to keep their prices closer to standard American DVD prices. And for that price, they simply can't afford to go too nuts on the physical extras.

This leads to the other reason: when it comes to non-physical extras (like CD tracks, bonus features, etc...) sometimes the American publisher simply can't get the rights to include a lot of those. Some of them aren't owned by the licensor of the show, but the publisher of the disc in Japan (which is often a different company). Some of them are held back entirely, so that the Japanese fans who pay the big bucks can get something special, just for them. Add to that, the headache of getting every piece of box design and every extra feature translation approved by the licensor, and it's often just not worth the effort for the American publisher.

Commemorative limited editions are nice to have, but with most fans in America being fairly young and broke, there simply aren't enough fans who are comfortable on spending for the giant lavish boxed sets to deal with all of those issues in making them for the American market. Back in the early days of the anime DVD boom, American companies went nuts trying to produce all sorts of interesting extra features, recording commentary tracks, interviews, and meticulously laying out storyboard comparison videos and slideshows. And you know what? After a while they realized that those extras didn't equate to many more sales. And so they stopped doing so much of those.

Occasionally, for big, well-loved shows, the American publishers still try to pull out all the stops. But they're watching both the cost of the product and the manufacturing costs very closely. Nobody wants to be like Bandai Entertainment when they were stuck with piles of unsold Lucky Star LE boxes.

And that's all for this week! Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!)

Justin Sevakis is the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap, and check out his bi-weekly column on obscure old stuff, Pile of Shame.

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