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Orb: Remote Media Access with Windows Mobile

September 21st, 2006 Jason Dunn

Orb is a simply-named, but profoundly useful remote access digital media product that when used in conjunction with a Windows Mobile device, is guaranteed to put a smile on your face for sheer “Wow!” factor. Orb is both the name for the service and the software itself. You install it on any Windows XP-based computer, and it transforms your computer into a powerful solution for serving up your media from any browser, anywhere – including the one found in your Windows Mobile device. The service was initially fee-based at launch, but is now free and advertising supported. Orb is made even more useful when installed on a computer with a TV tuner as I’ll explain below, but will work fine without one. This article will cover some of the basics of installing and using Orb.

To get started with Orb, you’ll need to go to the Orb Web site and register an account. You’ll then select your country to download the appropriate software client – it’s likely that the country-specific software install is for TV listings. There are versions for the United States of America, Britain, Australia, Ireland, Canada, France, Japan, Germany, Korea, and Taiwan. Once you install the software, Orb will by default search the My Pictures, My Videos, and My Music. You can configure the software to include other folders in the search, which is helpful if you have a Windows Media Center Edition 2005 computer and want to include your Recorded TV folder. The initial scan will take a few minutes, depending on the amount of media you have. Once Orb is installed, it will reside in the system tray, and will start automatically when Windows loads.

Orb is an unusual program insofar as it doesn’t actually do anything for you on the PCs it’s installed on. The real magic is when you go to from any Web browser, including on a Smartphone or Pocket PC. After login in with your username and password, Orb will perform a connection speed test in order to deliver the most optimized media streaming. After the speed test, you’ll be presented with the main Orb screen. This screen is an overview of all the media on your PC. There’s no fussing with firewalls or IP addresses – Orb just works, and that’s what impressed me so much about it. Here’s some of what’s possible with Orb:


The first screen gives you a quick overview of your media. In my case, I had just recorded the TV show “Dallas Swat” so Orb bubbles it up to the top for viewing. It also shows me another TV show (I’m not sure how it determines what to show) along with a red “record” icon next to it for easy recording.


The next screen is focused around music – the options for drilling down into your music include artist, album, genre, year, and others. All of this sorting is based on the metadata on your music, so if it’s missing artist and album information, you’ll have trouble finding things. When you rip music CDs with Windows Media Player, it will usually correctly identify and update the metadata. If you have a collection of music that didn’t come from CDs you ripped (or you ripped them with other software), things aren’t always that clean. The best tool I’ve found for updating music metadata is a program called Media Monkey. It allows you to select a group of files and look up the album on, and the program will automatically update all the metadata. Best of all, the basic version is free! On the audio page there’s also an option to listen to Internet radio stations – if you find one you like, you can even record it! The settings allow you to specify how long you wish to record, and an immediate start or a scheduled beginning.


The video screen allows you to access any of the videos you have stored on your hard drive. The videos can be accessed by date, favourite videos you’ve tagged, or by browsing based on directory. There’s also an AccuWeather link that will show a video of the national weather forecast in the United States. When you select a video, Orb will re-encode video on the fly to match your connection speed: this means if you’ve recorded a TV show and it’s 720 x 480 and 4000 kbps, and you try to watch it with a Pocket PC over WiFi, Orb will transcode the file to 320 x 240 and 500 kbps (this will vary depending on your actual connection speed). It does this in real-time on the PC, which is great because it means there’s no need to specially prepare your content for Windows Mobile devices in advance. The video page is where you’ll see some advertisements, but they’re the kind I actually enjoy: movie trailers! At the time of this writing, Sony Pictures has nine movie trailers available for viewing.

If Orb can’t play a particular video file because that PC it’s installed on lacks the appropriate codec, Orb will instead serve up a video file that says there’s a video error and instruct the user to go to for further instructions. It’s a very interesting way of dealing with codec errors. I found Orb video streaming to work surprisingly well over GPRS/EDGE speeds – in fact, on my Qtek 8500 Smartphone, I was able to stream video from Orb more easily than from the Slingbox. I’m not sure why that is, but it was a very obvious difference.


The Orb photo browsing tool is basic, but effective. You can browse by date or by folder, and it picks up the date automatically from the last modified date on your file. If you’ve got your photos organized into folders, the folder method is probably the easiest way to browse. Here’s where Orb does something peculiar: it shows thumbnails of the images, but they’re so incredibly tiny (18 pixels wide by 13 pixels tall), they’re completely useless. I have to think this is some sort of software bug, because no one would find such small thumbnails helpful.


You can select an image and it will load, or you can select the Play button and it will kick off a browser-based slideshow. The slideshow isn’t very impressive though, because the images are quite small on the screen, and the screen doesn’t rotate to match the orientation of the image. This is where the browser-based limitations of Orb are most obvious and I wish it was application-based. Still, for as a last-ditch effort at accessing a picture, Orb gets the job done.


The Add-Ons screen offers an assortment of functionality: weather reports (USA only), Internet Explorer bookmarks stored on your PC running Orb (not Firefox though), and show contacts listed in Outlook and other popular email clients including Skype, Gmail, Yahoo, Opera and Outlook Express. There’s also a Yahoo! Finance stock symbol lookup – perfect for those times when you want to check on your portfolio I suppose! The most useful function on the Add-On page is the file browser. This gives you browser-based access to your entire PC, and your network as well. I was able to remotely access my network attached storage drive from my Smartphone and stream a video I had stored there – incredibly cool! Interestingly enough, you can even upload files in this manner – so if you have a file on your Windows Mobile device that you want to put on your remote PC, you can do so via Orb.

Orb is one of those programs that can transform the way you access your media – in many ways, Orb frees the user from ever having to think about which media is on which device. Of course, one of the down-sides to this approach is that you need to have an Internet connection in order to access your media through Orb. No Internet access, no media. If you have a Smartphone on a wide-ranging EVDO network, this may not be a problem. If you have a Pocket PC with only WiFi, your options are more limited. Another negative is that Orb remote access is purely browser-based: this is great for compatibility, but it’s not terribly fast or efficient. It would be great to have a native Windows Mobile client that would allow you to quickly browse through directories, search more easily, have one-click favourites, cache image thumbnails, and do things like full-screen photo slideshows with music (all streamed).

I’ve been using Orb now for a little over six months, and I really enjoy it. I don’t access my media remotely on a daily basis, but I find it reassuring to know that as long as I have cell coverage with my Windows Mobile Smartphone, I can access any photo, any song, any TV show, or any video on my PC. That’s a powerful solution, and when you consider that Orb is free, it makes it all the more appealing.