A Server by Any Other Name is Not a Kaleidescape

Last week Kaleidescape introduced a new product, the Cinema One, that I and many others in the trade and consumer press felt was pretty big news. For a company known for making systems for the luxury market costing as much as automobiles, breaking the $4,000 barrier was a major move to capture a much broader segment of the market. That is good for them as a company, and good for Kaleidescape dealers because they finally have a way to overcome the one major hurdle that killed most sales.
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Last week Kaleidescape introduced a new product, the Cinema One, that I and many others in the trade and consumer press felt was pretty big news. For a company known for making systems for the luxury market costing as much as automobiles, breaking the $4,000 barrier was a major move to capture a much broader segment of the market. That is good for them as a company, and good for Kaleidescape dealers because they finally have a way to overcome the one major hurdle that killed most sales.

But almost as soon as the announcement came out, the typical anti-Kaleidescape comments started flooding in—how someone could build their own system for far less money that works just as good as a Kaleidescape.

I’d like to take a few paragraphs to tell you exactly why these other solutions may be media servers, but will never be the same as a Kaleidescape, even the new, $3,995 Cinema One. And before you accuse me of being a fanboy, I’m going to take impartiality off the table and admit that, yes, I am a Kaleidescape fanboy. Having reviewed, sold, and lived with the product in various incarnations for years, they have earned my fanboy status. It’s also one of the few products that continues to get as much use in my home now as the day it was first installed.

I’ve left the comment text complete, poor grammar and all, in italics below.

Homebrew Solutions
I was talking with a buddy last night about [the Cinema One], and he just started to laugh hysterically. He went on to inform me that he had ‘magic software’ that cost him nothing that rips ‘all’ DVDs and Blurays. He said only a fool would pay such a price, and the more I think about it, he may be right.

The typical “this can be done for way less money!” media server solution is generally built around some kind of Media Center PC running some brand of third-party software that is illegal. (Do your own research on the matter, but I doubt you will find any information saying that breaking the DVD-CCA’s CSS copy protection, which is present on all commercial DVD discs—one of the first steps in making a copy—is legal.) Now you can argue that the Fair Use Act gives you the right to make a backup, and you feel that breaking the disc protection for that purpose is warranted, but technically, it’s illegal. Nonetheless, let’s look past that for a moment. At the end of the day, some kind of PC and third-party software is running the show, and from a reliability standpoint, these don’t hold a candle to a Kaleidescape system. Restarts, reboots, lock-ups, fan noise and lights, and random WTFs?!? are often in play. Kaleidescape, on the other hand, runs on a purpose-built operating system—KOS—that is the closest thing to bulletproof that you will find in the home market. Also, from an integration standpoint, Kaleidescape supports everything from a simple IR-based Harmony remote to the most elaborate automation system from Crestron and all points in-between; no mouse required. Ever.

Metadata

Breaking the disc’s encryption and importing the movie is only half the task; once the content has been imported you need a way to browse your collection to find what you’re looking for. While there are some automated ways of identifying a movie and adding the appropriate information in a cobbled media server, the reality is that owners often need to manually search for this information or enter it on their own. Kaleidescape employs a full-time Movie Guide team to meticulously update metadata, making sure every disc imported has the correct high-resolution cover art, actor and director information, rating, running time, aspect ratio, and more. If you ever run into a title that isn’t in their database, Kaleidescape will pay the cost for you to send them the disc, and then they will add it to their database and return it to you. Kaleidescape then takes this metadata and uses it to automatically sort your films in a variety of ways, even suggesting movies that are similar to the last title you stopped on, making it simple to always find the perfect movie in your collection.


Features
$4000 to store a 100 Blu-rays or $8000 to store 200 Blu-rays ... this can be done with more storage space, the same functionality and home automation integration at a fraction of the cost. This is not a good product, unless you have money to burn.

Assuming you get the disc into the server with the correct metadata, you’ll likely be able to play the movie on your homemade server. Congratulations. But you still don’t have anything close to a Kaleidescape system. In fact, merely “playing the movie” is really a small part of what a Kaleidescape does.

First, you get the option to jump directly to the film, skipping any trailers, warnings or menus.

Second, the disc imports in its entirety, so for the times where you want to watch a special feature, or need a foreign language or subtitle track or some other feature of the disc, it’s there.

Third, Kaleidescape bookmarks the most iconic scenes in thousands of movies, letting you enjoy a “highlight reel” from your favorite films. Of course, you can also easily bookmark your own personal favorite scenes if you like, simply by pressing a “start” and “end” button on the remote or app. Along with scenes, Kaleidescape tags songs in tons of concert videos and musicals. Want to jump straight to “Think of Me” from Phantom of the Opera because you saw the stage production the night you got engaged? Kaleidescape has your back, you romantic bastard!

Fourth is the ability to set up as many “collections” as you like, sorting your films into categories like “Oscar Winners” or “Dad’s Favorites” or whatever else you can think of. This also enables the “Child’s Collection,” which can place the system into a kid-friendly mode that allows youngsters of virtually any age to browse and select their favorite content. What do you need to do to take advantage of these features? Simply place the disc in the tray and press the “Import” button; the system automatically does the rest. Add to all of that an amazing iPad control app with integrated Rotten Tomatoes and Common Sense Media reviews, repositioning of subtitles in 2.35 aspect movies, full parental controls by zone, episode naming for TV series, auto selection of preferred favorite audio format, keeping track of paused titles for as long as you want, a full music player with album reviews and artist biographies, and you can see why a “home server” comes up woefully short of being a Kaleidescape.

Downloading
I would rather just use Vudu where you can get Blu-ray quality movies too. You can also rent/purchase them.

While I will agree that Vudu is a terrific service, it comes up way short compared to Kaleidescape in a couple of areas. For one, Vudu offers no way to manage the library of discs that you already own. This is where Kaleidescape started, this is their wheelhouse, and this is where they excel. Admittedly, if your disc collection is next to nothing, then perhaps Kaleidescape isn’t right for you. But beyond just managing your own discs, Kaleidescape now offers the only way to download true Blu-ray quality movies. And as good as Vudu’s HDX is—and it’s the best streaming video quality I’ve experienced—it is not true Blu-ray quality. While the video is quite good, the audio falls noticeably short of Blu-ray’s lossless Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD-Master formats. With a Kaleidescape Blu-ray-quality download, you get identical Blu-ray picture and sound quality along with all of the disc’s special features—something no other company offers. However, far from dissing Vudu, I would say that Vudu can serve as the perfect complement to a Kaleidescape system, offering additional titles, and an option to rent instead of purchase movies.

Performance
The one thing I have not been able to duplicate is the reliability of a Kscape setup and the user experience for my technophile wife and two very young kids. While I’m quite proud of my HTPC, and I think it’s super easy to use, I cannot count the number of phone calls I have gotten that start with ‘There’s something wrong with the stupid media server!’

While I’m sure the quality varies, many of the media server-based solutions I have experienced often have sketchy video processing. Because they are computers first and video players second, they weren’t designed for first-class video performance, unlike Kaleidescape, which was designed solely to be a movie player and utilizes terrific video processing to deliver excellent Blu-ray and DVD performance. Kaleidescape also has a feature called Cinemascape that enhances performances for users with 2.35:1 screens. Also integral to “the Kaleidescape experience” is the amazing technical support; because the system is registered to an owner and connected to the internet, its “health” is constantly monitored by Kaleidescape who often takes a proactive role in problem solving.

Look, if you’re a hobbyist that likes to tinker and you enjoy updating and configuring and don’t mind occasionally searching forums for fixes and workarounds and want to challenge yourself to see if you can build a movie server, that’s cool and I certainly wish you luck. But, just don’t think that because you saved yourself a few hundred bucks and have migrated your movies onto a hard disc that you have built something that in any way compares to what Kaleidescape owners have. It’s a bit like two people going out to eat; one at Taco Bell and the other spending an evening at The French Laundry. They’re both eating food at a restaurant and at the end of the night they’ll both be full, but the journey and the experience are far different.

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John Sciacca is principal of Custom Theater and Audio in Myrtle Beach, SC.

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