Friday, June 15, 2007

Media: Orb Networks

Recently I have been hearing a lot from various people about Orb Networks. Orb is a small utility that you run off of your PC that streams, or "MyCasts" the various media files you have on your system, such as movies, photos, music, etc. Whats really cool about this is that it lets you access your media anywhere in the world. So if you keep an MP3 collection on a home system, if its running orb, you can access it no matter where you are, assuming you have Internet connectivity. It also gives you access to file shares remotely, which in my opinion is a bit of a security hole. What really got me interested was a forwarded link talking about using a home console gaming system for streaming. So I decided to try it out.

For my experiment, I have the entire first season of Heros, which I have been meaning to catch up on, recorded onto my laptop. The original plan was to convert them to IPod video and watch them on the go, however I do enjoy evenings with the Mrs. on the couch watching shows. I have the Memorex portable monitor I use with my IPod video, and that has video out, but thats a pain to set up. So streaming directly from my laptop to one of my gaming systems became an attractive option. This was a feature of the hacked XBox's, so I wanted to give the XBox 360 built in media player a test.

First, I had to install the Orb client onto my laptop. After installing it, I configured it to not startup on Windows bootup. I also added my media folder to the list of folders for Orb to search that contains media files. After I installed it, I ran a virus scan and a malware scan using AdAware to make sure no spyware was installed with this application. I also did a quick packet capture while the service is running to see who the Orb client is phoning home to, like I do with other apps (and found some surprising results, which phone home to sites that are now blocked at my firewall). After a few minutes, I was convinced I wasn't seeing any bizarre connections, of course further investigation might be required.

Once installed, I had to sign up for an account. And that was all there was to it.

Once the Orb client was set up, from my XBox 360, I went to the Media/Video option, told it to connect to my system, and it displayed my folders.

A few things came up though. Performance was dismally bad over a 10Mbps network and using my wireless adaptor on my laptop. I had to move the 360 and my laptop over to my 100 Mbps switch. Once there, performance was acceptable. So apparently the adaptive feature doesn't quite work as advertised. Also, from the XBox 360, the fast forward and rewind buttons did not work. Not sure if this was an issue with Orb or with the Xbox. Additionally, I tried it out using the Wii. This worked fairly well also. But since I was accessing it using the Opera browser, the browser navigation bars never disappeared. That detracted from the viewing experience. Plus I had to connect to the Orb servers using the Wii, where as with the XBox 360 it connected directly to my laptop. So I think I'll be watching these from my 360 for the time being.

Some other features that I did not test were the ability to record TV using a TV Tuner card. When I set up ORB, it asked me my location and cable channel, and pulled up a TV Guide. Apparently I can watch my cable TV remotely also, just like with a Slingbox. Not sure if the hardware cost for a TV Tuner card and a dedicated machine is cheaper than a Slingbox, but I do like the added abilities of Orb.

Overall, I am impressed. Where as I was a little suspicious of this software at first, I found no evidence of spyware with it. So I am not sure how Orb stays in business or who pays for their servers. It did exactly what I needed for media streaming to my home entertainment system via my XBox 360, which opens new avenues for me. So, I can honestly say that I will be using Orb regularly.

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