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You Plexy Thing!

Late last year I purchased an Amazon Fire TV

I wanted it to facilitate my watching Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video without needing to turn on my Xbox, which was rather noisy and convoluted to get to the applications, not to mention a little noisier and clunkier than I would have chosen.

The Fire TV box looked to be ideal, and with the changes Amazon made to Prime in the latter half of the year, it became an easy decision.

What I didn’t count upon was discovering Plex and the Plex Media Server.

There is a Plex app which can be installed on the AFTV, which enables a connection via the Network to a Plex Media Server which can run on a PC (Windows, Linux or FreeBSD) or Mac, or if you’re fairly lucky, a NAS. My 3 year old QNAP NAS allows me to install it, but just doesn’t have the CPU or Memory to successful run the Media Server, let alone handle the Transcoding workloads it generates, so I might just have to consider a NAS upgrade in the future. In the meantime, running the PMS on a Windows Desktop PC and creating links to mapped drives containing the content that sits on the NAS seems to work well enough!

So then I started to dabble a bit in to creating the content to feed it. Now anyone that’s been to my place will know I’m something of a quality fiend, enjoying High Definition picture quality from Blu-ray, and 5.1 or higher surround sound, so I didn’t really want to loose any of that when streaming, but if I could achieve an acceptable balance of quality against size, it would mean that I didn’t have to keep reaching for physical media when I wanted to watch something, which would be fantastic!

After a fair bit of trial and error, and extensively searching t’interweb, I’ve settled on a two stage process. Firstly, I use MakeMKV to “Rip” a Blu-ray disc. This generates a lossless source copy of between 20-25gb (depending of course on the source). This is a legal action in the UK now since 1st June, assuming of course that you legitimately own the source media and aren’t ripping borrowed or loaned media. This follows the Hargreaves Review, see here and here for details. It takes me between 20 and 30 minutes to generate this source file on a fairly well specified (but two year old) Haswell i7 (3820) CPU. There is a trick to using MakeMKV, and that’s to make sure you choose the correct Soundtrack that you want to keep (eg English/DTS) and if you’re like me you’ll only want to rip the Movie itself, and not bother with the other extras on the Blu-ray disc.

I then take this rather large .mkv file, and run it through Handbrake, having set the video to an RF value of about 20 for Blu-ray source media, and in another 25-30 mins I’ll re-encode the .mkv in to an H.264 .mp4 file, which is usually between 6 and 10gb in size, depending on the length and quality of the source file, and would therefore allow me to store between 200 and 300 files on a 2Tb HDD.

Then it’s just a question of setting up Libraries on the Plex Media Server for the type of content. This isn’t difficult, but requires a little thought and planning. I created separate libraries for Film and TV Series’ because Plex allowed me to separate them. This makes sense given the Media Enrichment capabilities Plex has, where it will try and identify the media from the filename, and will then download from IMDB and/or elsewhere extra information about the cast/crew, posters and/or thumbnails etc and generally make it look very sexy on the screen. For TV programmes, it will allow drill-down by Series too, so you can choose Series -> Season -> Episode.

Plex Media Server

Above is the view you get from a PC or MAC running Google Chrome and browsing to the Plex Media Server.  The above shows all of the Movies I’ve got stored in my Library.

If I click on any of these, I’ll get a further display with details of the cast, crew, and a synopsis of the plot, all enriched with background images taken from the movie, and where Plex can find it, the theme music too.

The same process happens for TV programmes, with the added step of choosing a Season if possible too for the TV programme.

The User Interface from the AFTV itself is remarkably similar, with the same enrichment capabilities, and the whole process just works so very well.

In fact on the AFTV, it will also tell me the quality of the Video and Sound too!  If you look in the bottom/left of the photo below, you’ll see an example showing the 1080p, H.264 and dts 5.1 sound.

tv1

So, my project has become to further expand my library, and transfer as much of my blu-ray library on to Plex as I reasonably can.  This will doubtless take me years given the rate that I accumulate them, but I’ve already started doing this with “new” media as it lands, so I can watch it without media at my leisure.

Customer Service

I’ve seen examples of both Amazing/Excellent Customer Service, and pretty piss poor couldn’t-care-less Customer Service in the last 24 hours.

My DART Tag

Starting with the negative first, earlier this week I had cause to travel through the Dartford Toll Crossing twice. As a reasonably regular traveler of that route in the past, I long ago invested in a “DART-TAG” to make my life easier, and to save a few pennies.  What SHOULD happen is that as you approach the toll barrier, the equipment there somehow senses the presence of your tag, and so just debits the charge to your account.  In most cases you don’t even have to stop, the barrier is sensitive enough and quick enough for you to just slowly drive on through.  The Tag usually emits a loud “bleep” to indicate it’s been recognised, and you get a nice friendly message saying that the toll had been paid (or your credit was low of course!).  But this time, when I tried it on the way “out” this week, NOTHING HAPPENED.

No Bleep.  No nice friendly message, and most importantly NO ACCESS through the barrier.   And of course the car behind me was right up behind me, meaning I couldn’t reverse to reach the machine’s coin catcher if I wanted to.

I had to go rummaging around in the loose change in my pockets, and rolling about in the car trying to find enough change to pay my toll.  I could see the people in the car behind me getting impatient and exasperated, and then I had to sort of wriggle out of the window and reach over my shoulder and behind me to get the money in the machine.

The return journey was a similar experience, only I was prepared for the eventuality that it might not work and had the cash ready to use.

So as you might expect, I looked at the Tag Website to see what if anything was said about a Tag not responding, and there was nothing.  The “FAQ” seemed quite laughable in actual fact, when you consider the number of tags that must be out there (mine is numbered well in to the hundreds of thousands) it is not outside the realms of possibility that they might just stop working every so often, for whatever reason.   Simply NOT having a “What do I do if my tag doesn’t work” in the FAQ doesn’t really make me think that it’s a wholly reliable solution that never goes wrong, merely that the operators of the service are too short sighted to realise that this is EXACTLY the sort of thing an FAQ might actually be Helpful with.   Instead I resorted to the “for any other enquiries please e-mail xxxxxx” option, seeing as the published telephone numbers all seemingly close at 5.30pm!

Anyway, to my disappointment, it’s been over 24 hours now, and I’ve not so much as had an acknowledgement of my e-mail, let alone an answer to my problem.   If I’d have been traveling through the Crossing again today, it would have cost me £1.50 each way instead of £1 each way with the tag, so I’d have lost more money.  I therefore hold this up as a classic example of (1) how to NOT help your customers via your Service Website, and (2) how to NOT help your customers by responding in a timely manner.  There’s nothing for it but to label this as  BAD CUSTOMER SERVICE.

And then the positive.

I was gutted today to discover when I picked my Kindle up intending to use it, that the screen appears to have broken.

My rather broken Kindle

I can genuinely say that I’ve not dropped it, smacked it, or anything else.  Indeed you can see the plastic surround is pristine and undamaged, as is the surface of the screen itself.   I keep it in a purpose made leather wallet which is also totally undamaged.   When transporting it, I tend to put it in my baggage right next to my iPad which is also absolutely fine, so I have absolutely no idea how this damage occured.

Unfortunately it renders the Kindle quite unusable.  The top/right hand part of the screen stubbornly displays the last “advert” it displayed in Sleep mode before I turned it on, and the bottom/left part of the screen works more or less as normal.

So I called Amazon using the “call me back” facility on the Website.   I bought the Kindle back in March this year, from my local Tesco.  I had Googled “Kindle Repairs” and come up fairly short, so really wanted to ask Amazon if they could offer or recommend a repair service.  However I was astounded by what happened next.

I explained what I’d found, and how I couldn’t explain how the damage had occured, and before I could ask my questions, the operator started asking me a few other things.  When did I purchase the unit?  I wasn’t totally sure, maybe as long as 6 months ago from Tesco, I hadn’t bought it from Amazon.co.uk directly.  No, to the best of my knowledge it hadn’t been dropped, or squashed, or exposed to water.  Yes, I had tried the “cold reset” facility.    Ok then, in that case they’ll dispatch a replacement today on next-day delivery, please send the old one back in the next 30 days.

I was astounded.    Given my honesty and sheer puzzlement over what could have caused the damage, I certainly wasn’t angling for a free replacement.  I was expecting to have to pay for a repair or even replace it at my own expense.   Never did I expect a replacement to be sent out just like that.   No “proof of purchase” required, no quibbles, or messing about.  Just a straight replacement, and I hadn’t even asked!

Of course I wasn’t going to turn it down, so I went from being quite angry and annoyed with the prospect of spending another £150 on a replacement Kindle to elated and overjoyed that I’d be getting a Free Replacement (and a postage-paid label to return my old broken one with!) the very next day.

That in my estimation is going above and beyond the requirements of Acceptable Customer Service in to the realms of the Exceptional.  Well done indeed Amazon.co.uk, you have one very happy customer here!