First Flight: Neuros OSD

The following is a FIRST FLIGHT writeup, not a formal review.

The point of a FIRST FLIGHT is to record my experiences, impressions, and snap-judgments during my very first few minutes with a new thing. I’m writing my thoughts down as I’m thinking them and the only editing performed after the fact is for style and grammar, not content.

I do believe that these sort of writeups are interesting and even valuable. They document the familiar frustrations and joys of trying something for the very first time. They also illustrate my own expectations (fair and unfair) and my “process” in figuring out a new piece of gear.

But by no means does a FIRST FLIGHT benefit from the careful experimentation, research, and extended experience that informs and validates a formal review.

I am making no conclusions of any kind about the product in this writeup; I am merely documenting a set of initial thoughts and experiences.

Bless you, dear reader, for linking to this and sending some traffic my way. But please DO NOT refer to it as a “review.” You will be misleading your own valued readers about the authority of this piece.

Bless you, dear reader, for chiming in with your own insights and experiences with this product. But DO NOT upbraid me for not knowing what the hell I’m talking about. You will look very, very foolish.

Got it? OK…onward we go.

The frustrating catch-22 of my job is that oftentimes, a really cool and long-awaited thing arrives on my doorstep at a time when I’m suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous editors. I sign for a long, skinny package. From the return address, I know that this contains the Spear of Destiny, a conduit of unspeakable mystical force conferring unbounded powers upon he who can wield it with wisdom and purity.

But I promised an editor that by the end of the day, I’d send her 450 words about what sort of phone Fidel Castro should buy. So Christ’s Lance has to stay in its consecrated bubble wrap.

The Neuros OSD arrived last week. Conceptually, it’s an intensely great idea: it’s a modern digital version of a VCR. I already have plenty of ways to convert a movie or a TV show into a video file that I can throw onto my server or sync to my phone or iPod. None of them are as simple as just picking up a remote control, pushing a “Record” button, and having whatever’s playing on your TV copied to a bit of removable media.

It does plenty of other things, o’course. But if the Neuros works as simply and effectively as a VCR, it’ll make digital media easy and relevant to a whole new population of normal humans. Getting a DVD or last night’s Letterman onto a smartphone is still heavy voodoo to most people; too many steps, too many technologies. Ideally, the Neuros reduces it to nothing more than pulling a MiniSD card from a trim little set-top box and then sliding it into the phone’s memory slot. Done and done.

The season finale of “Project Runway” starts in an hour. Let’s see if I can get this set up in time to record the show on a memory card and then watch it on the eee PC’s open-source video player.

Naturally I don’t even look at the manual. Instead, I fish out the foldup “Abbreviated Users Guide.”

Umm…

Wow. This might be the first “Quick Start”-type of insert that’s harder to follow than the actual manual. Well, if the Neuros is like a VCR, then the installation and setup should be pretty obvious.

The AC adapter has one of those cool right-angle plugs that slips right into an empty socket on my power strip. It’s a small touch but I always appreciate that.

…But it turns out that the power strip under the TV also has space-saving right-angle plugs. So the two conveniences cancel each other out. Not even remotely Neuros’ fault but still…damn and blast.

The Neuros is a trim little box and it doesn’t have room for a full bank of video connectors. Instead, the video in and out are 1/8″ jacks. Two 1/8″ to composite-video cables are included. This ought to be as simple as hooking up any other sort of video component: I’ll just stick it between the DVD burner and the TV.

There is the usual fear as I’m about to do something to a Working System that could turn it into a Not Working System. But yup, just patch in a couple of plugs and presto: the picture comes back on the Bravo Project Runway Marathon. Now there’s a Neuros menu overlaid on the picture electronically.

I load up the Neuros remote control with the two no-name probably highly toxic AAA batteries that came in the box and press a button marked “Home” which looks like it might be helpful. Presto, the menu I saw comes back on.

Let’s see how far I get without consulting any of the documentation.

Here’s a “Getting Started” menu item. Click. Neat, a whole “Read Me” sort of deal. I learn that there’s a Help button on the remote for each menu item and option. What happens if I press the help button during help?

Oooo…it dumps you out of the readme and puts you back at the top menu.

About the remote: it’s a very generic plastic OEM remote with Neuros labels silkscreened on it.

As I write this, electronic menu overlay gets tired of waiting and returns me to plain live video (which is absolutely the correct answer). I’m pleased that I don’t have to stop watching live video when I’m navigating menus.

Odd, though: there’s an audible mechanical click as the overlay appears and disappears. I’m guessing that this is a sign that the box has a “pass-thru” mode that it uses when it’s not doing anything productive (as opposed to always “owning” the channel and merely choosing when to add graphics).

Hit “Home” to get the help doc again. Hmm, picture loses sync for a fraction of a second when the overlay first appears. Not disruptive, but not a “polished” response.

There is a universal “Back” button for taking one step back through whatever menu you’ve drilled down into. Nice touch. And a button marked “Xim,” apparently. Which I’m sure looked great on a whiteboard but it’s a word that means nothing.

Actually, let’s just go to UrbanDictionary.com and see if it means nothing.

…Good, there’s no listing for “Xim.” When I see a word I don’t understand (or worse, am about to use a word that I only think I understand) it’s a good idea to check the UD. Usually it actually means something positively filthy that kids that age never did when I was in junior high.

If they did, they never invited me, anyway.

Okay. So we’re making great progress. 30 minutes of installation, including writing all of this stuff, and it appears that I had it up and working 15 minutes ago. Let’s just head right for the good stuff: recording live video onto a SDHC card.

Looks straightforward. “Record • Schedule” menu item is the obvious choice (though I hesitate; I don’t want to set up a scheduled recording, I just want to record something immediately. But apparently the bullet means “and/or.”

“Recording Settings.” Gee, interesting: it lists a handful of typical devices (iPod, PSP, TV, Smartphone). I assume each of these is a different bitrate and size. I also assume that the best of the four presets would be TV or Sony PSP.

I do know that the Neuros uses MP4 as its recording format so I doubt it’s a codec choice. Click.

Now it wants to know the recording length. Hmm. I thought this was “preferences” sort of place (ie, “Mr. Neuros, please use these settings every time I press the ‘record’ button on the remote”). Is it going to try to start recording right now? Let’s see.

“Select storage location.”

Umm…

I don’t have anything hooked up yet. I see a “Shortcuts” menu and a “Network” menu. Let’s see what happens when I slip an 8 gig SDHC card into a slot there.

(Hmm. It’s hard to read these slots. The Neuros has several for the many different types of cards, plus a USB port. But they’re black on a black faceplate labeled with tiny letters. And when you’re watching TV, you usually have the lights dimmed, too.)

Card is in. No apparent change in the menu. I was hoping for a “Save video to the SDHC memory card you just inserted” menu item or something. Time to start clicking things at random. Maybe you set storage location under “shortcuts.” The only other choice is “network” and it can’t possibly be that.

UH-oh. “Press ENTER key to select storage location,” screen says…but screen appears to be locked up.

Yup, “Enter,” “Home,” “Back,” arrow keys, “Help”…no joy, it’s frozen. No blinking lights or anything on the box either. Time to cut power and restart, I think.

Actually, I removed the card and then the Neuros unfroze and moved on to the next screen in the operation. Odd; it’s a standard FAT-formatted card fresh from my digital camera.

And yes, it did assume that I wanted to record immediately. When I pulled the card it gave me a (polite) error saying that there wasn’t enough storage space.

Let’s try that again. I’m back at the main menu and now I’ll stick the card back in.

Hmm. This is no good; presence of the card locks up the box no matter what it’s doing that moment.

Let’s try formatting the card, to remove that as a variable. I don’t suppose it’s even possible that it doesn’t support SDHC?

I’ll be damned…no it doesn’t. That’s a pretty big minus, considering how dirt-cheap 8 and 16 gig cards have become…and the simplicity of using ’em as “floppies” for recorded video!

Oy. Okay, let me grab an 0111d-sk0001 memory card from whatever chair leg they’re currently propping up.

No, actually, I’ll plug in my iPod here. I’ve got disk mode activated and the Neuros has a standard USB plug, for use with any USB mass storage device. The video file won’t be added to the iPod library, of course, but it ought to write the file there just fine.

Hmm. It’s not showing up under what I presumed was the list of storage devices. I know it’s in target mode (the iPod screen confirms it).

Nope, I see “Shortcuts” and “Network.” It isn’t under “Network,” is it?

Nope.

I’m stumped. Let’s look through other menus. “Home,” and then “Settings.”

“Default Recording.”

Aha! This page (which offers a long list of specific settings, all the way down to the audio and video bitrates) says that it’s going to save to “USB.”

Cool, I approve these settings.

“No storage found, are you sure you want to save?”

Sigh.

Okay, let’s try another USB storage device. As it happened, today’s mail also brought a 32 gigabyte (yes, 32 gig) thumb drive. Can you see that, Mr. Neuros?

Ooookayyy…it seems to be recording to the thumb drive.

I think.

I mean, the access light on the drive is flashing and everything.

Incidentally, “Project Runway” started 20 minutes ago. Fortunately, the DVR started recording it at 10. Will restart it from the beginning and then simply sit back and enjoy the show…and afterwards, I’ll see if the Neuros actually did anything.

Incidentally(2) they made a real lamebrained mistake on the USB port: they put it in upside-down. There’s a USB logo above the jack and that would normally imply that you need to have the USB logo on the cable facing upward…but nope, that’s the wrong way.

Okay, I’m watching the show. Will pick this up after I press the “Stop” button on the Neuros remote.

Change of plans: I pressed “Pause” when the first commercial break came on. Cool. I see a familiar PVR-ish progress bar superimposed on the screen, indicating that it’s paused recording after 12 minutes and some seconds. Commercials are over, resume recording, and I see the seconds ticking by for half a minute before the bar disappears again.

I think I see the problem with the storage devices: I kept giving the Neuros incompatible volumes. First the SDHC card, then the iPod…which I belatedly realize is formatted with the Mac OS file system. I bet the Neuros is only compatible with FAT32 storage.

Makes sense. The thumb drive would certainly have come formatted as a FAT drive.

Back to the show. L8R.

Second commercial. Cool: I’ve just noticed that the green power light turns red when it’s recording. In pause, it turns green again. Nice touch.

Show’s over, I press Stop. “Finishing recording,” the screen says. “One moment, please.” After 30 seconds…I’m back at the Settings menu.

I exit out of the menu system completely. Let’s see what happens if I just press the “Record” button on the remote.

(…After I start “Reno: 911!” playing.)

Hmm. Pressing “Record” opens a menu where I have to confirm the recording. Wish it were true one-touch recording. Also seems odd that I appear to be back at the “Settings” menu when this happens. If this had been a true “Omigod! I should be recording this!!!” situation I would have missed the first five or ten seconds of it.

“Reno!” is over. Let’s see what I did.

Select “Play • Browse.” “USB” now appears in the list of storage places. Cool. Selecting it reveals a list of all files on the device…including a PDF and an executable that were already there to begin with.

Can it view the PDF? Select. Nope, but the menu allows me to rename, move, delete, etc.

“osd.mp4” is the first recording, likely “Project Runway.” Select. It starts playing after a six-second pause “Please wait…”

Video quality is very good. “TV” preset is 640×480, 30 fps, about 2.5 kbps. I definitely see some degradation, but maybe this isn’t the best test; it was compressing compressed video.

Now I’m curious to see if it can record from DVD. I pop in a “House” disc. I choose that one episode where the diagnostic team orders way too many speculative and unnecessary tests while making two or three incorrect diagnoses and inflicting one life-threatening course of treatment after another before House has a dramatic sudden insight and makes the right call at last…and then I push the “Record” button.

Okay, if the Neuros is having problems with Macrovision or anything, it isn’t complaining yet. I shall valiantly watch the whole episode before I stop the recording.

“House” is over. (Turns out it wasn’t lupus after all.)

I don’t see any sort of menu item for “Safely eject the USB media” so I’m just going to yank it out (I’ve stopped the recording and the access light isn’t blinking). I’ll stick it in the USB port of this here eee PC, and see if I can play the files wot I find there.

Yup! They all play just fine in the eee’s built-in open-source media player — the “House” episode, too, meaning that commercial DVDs are but stalks of wheat before the device’s scythe.

The videos look and sound very good, too. Smart choice the OSD’s designers made, to have it “default” to such high-quality recording settings. It ensures that the first recordings a new user makes will be damned wonderful. If they’d chosen more conservative settings, first-time users might be left with the wrong impression about its max quality.

I yank the flash drive from the eee, plug it into the MacBook. Works great there, too. The Finder can QuickLook each of these three movies and plays ’em in Quicktime Player and iTunes.

So there were a few initial rough spots, but most of those hiccups were easily explained. So far, this looks like a neat piece of gear. Next step will be to update to the very latest firmware and work my way through all of its features. But I like what I see so far and I’ll definitely be giving it a formal review in the Sun-Times in a few weeks.

3 thoughts on “First Flight: Neuros OSD”

  1. Andy, I love reading these first flight “reviews”. I can see myself going through the exact same motions as I break in a new gadget (most recently, slingbox). Very funny, looking forward to the next one! That being said, this Neuros looks like a great gadget. If only it had schedule information and proper tagging and naming of the output. It would be unnerving to have saved a bunch of shows, only to have them show up on my ipod as osd1.mp4, osd2.mp4, …

  2. You can do pretty much any typical Finder/Windows Explorer sort of thing with the contents of an attached volume. Rename files, copy them from one place to another, delete…that sorta thing. And it’s all open-source, so there’s nothing stopping someone from turning it into something more akin to a PVR, with a downloadable program guide via its Ethernet port.

    I like it lots so far. Still early, of course…

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