Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Why Emby's not for me

I so want to like Emby. I use the server as a lynchpin of my whole-house a/v system, integrating it with Kodi front ends where it provides excellent media management and serving. I've recently starting using Amazon FireTV devices as clients and, while it's possible to sideload Kodi on these devices, it's not a seamless process and there's always a question mark over how long it will be tolerated on that platform.

Emby client looks like it might be a viable alternative. It's a natural fit with the server and it's a fully-fledged member of the app community with a presence in all the relevant app stores. Plus, the recent addition of LiveTV support makes it worth having a look at. LiveTV is a big part of my system and PVR is a significant part of  the way we use TVC in our house. There's a TvHeadEnd instance running on the network that manages 6x terrestrial/satellite tuners with channels accessed through Kodi TV plugins.

Of course, TvHeadEnd is not an officially integrated TV backend for Emby, like NextPVR or MediaPortal. There is a community plug-in though so it should work OK. I tried it in the web browser instance and eventually managed to get a picture so thought I'd try the dedicated client. This turned out to be unsatisfactory for a variety of reasons;

Nag, Nag, Nag
I installed the Emby client on a couple of FireTV devices. The first barrier was an almost inability to do anything. The client is time-limited and only allows playback of up to a minute of content. This is fair enough as Emby need to generate revenues to put bread on the table and I support that. However, the constant nagging and information notices make it difficult even to access this one minute and I couldn't seem to get it to even give me a minute of TV. The UX here could be a lot better. (In fairness, I may have exceeded an initial one-month period in which there is better access to client features though for systems like my own which are in a current state of flux and in which I'm constantly trying things out, a month is not a lot!)

Payment Problems
In the interests of conducting a better text, I decided to take out a subscription. Emby provides monthly, annual or lifetime tiers. As I'm still in test mode, I went for the monthly $4.99 option. For things like this where I'm testing something with recurring payments, I use a pre-paid credit card which ensures I won't be paying on an ongoing basis for anything I don't want to. I loaded up ~$5 on my US Revolut account and completed the online subscription. The payment was rejected citing a mismatched postcode. I tried again, thinking I'd entered something incorrectly but again the payment was rejected, this time due to lack of funds. At this point, I noticed 2x $1 deductions from my card from Emby payment provider Stripe. What's that about? Why is Strip taking a dollar from my card for a failed transaction attempt? Will I ever get that back? Them taking the $1 reduced my balance and caused balance failure. I appreciate the amounts are trivial but this was deeply annoying. Now, I had to add further funds to my card when I'd reset my postcode. I eventually got a subscription set up and a 'pro' code from Emby to enter in my server. Not a good experience though.

UI Letdown
Now with a  working, fully subscribed client, I started playing around with the LiveTV features. I was largely unimpressed with the visual experience. I had a lot of Windows8-esque coloured blocks littering my screen and a fairly basic epg. I've been spoiled with Kodi and the myriad of skins available and the tweak ability of the UI within many of those skins. I'm assuming a lot of the coloured blocks in Emby are fall-backs and should in fact contain thumbnails but in may case, they resolutely remained as want-to-be Lego.

Network Fails

I also had significant problems with playback failures across multiple devices. I suspect this is related to my network mapping setup which is cumbersome. Recently, Emby have improved the network mapping in the server, moving it from a dedicated panel to individual paths, and this is a good thing. However, It's tricky to find the magic combination of entries in Kodi settings to make this work (finally got it on one PC) but, moving to FireTV, it's not clear what (if anything), I need to set up inside the Emby app or at a system level to make this work. In addition, as I'd set Emby client TV prefs to direct stream, I was surprised to see similar errors relating to playback.  I need to spend more time at this to figure it out.

It's Sloooooow

Almost everything above could be forgiven or fixed (a number of them relate to my own setup in any case) if the TV integration worked well. But unfortunately, it doesn't. When I do get TV working inside emby client (or in the web browser), channel tuning is painfully slow. My benchmark is, of course, Kodi, but I've used mediaportal and NextPVR in the past with mediaportal, ArgusTv and TvHeadEnd back ends as well as SageTV in the distant past. Never have I had to wait up to 10 seconds watching  a spinning wait icon to see picture. Add to this a seeming inability to set a series recording from the UI and it looks like I'll be cancelling my subscription for now.

I'd love it to work for me as it would unify my entire system but for now, it's a no-go. Maybe next year, if TVHeadEnd gets proper integration, I'll give it another go.

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