HOME Technology 2004
Digital home streams content across devices
PC becomes home infotainment hub
All the pieces of the puzzle are falling into place so the PC can be positioned as the Pandora’s box that transforms the television from a passive one-eyed monster into an interactive information and entertainment hub.

The multimedia PC at the core of the new digital home will collect, store, organise and share movies, photographs, music and television programs across a wireless network to roaming laptops, PDAs and the home entertainment system.

Ideally it’ll be equipped with digital video and photo editing software, MP3 jukeboxes for managing music files, a TV and radio tuner and a broadband Internet router to play networked games or share connectivity to the wider world.

Media Center PCs which have been popular in other parts of the world for over a year are finally here. The latest versions feature Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 and Windows Media Player 10. Just like the PC version the Media Centre operating system has the My Music icon and adds My Movies, My TV, My Radio and My DVDs to the mix.

Navigation is achieved with an infra-red remote control, although a wireless keyboard and mouse can also be added for email or web surfing.

On-line restrictions

In the US subscribers can download movies and music from a variety of sources including MSN Music, Napster, Virgin Digital, Movielink and CinemaNow. Local access is restricted until regional copyright and royalty issues are worked through.

Lack of access to the electronic programming guides (EPG) owned by Sky, TVNZ and other providers also means users can’t take advantage of full on-screen recording facilities. TV programming instructions have to be manually input into the calendar. Inevitably though these on-line services will be offered once the format gains a significant enough foothold and licensing issues are sorted through.

Auckland-based Arche Technology launched its Megabox home theatre PC over a year ago using third party Show Shifter software which ran on Windows XP Home. The latest version however uses Microsoft’s Media Centre which integrates and controls all the components more tightly.

The black box looks much more like a stereo mini system than a PC. It’s a 3GHz Pentium 4 which would typically have 256-512Mb RAM, 120Gb hard drive, DVD writer, TV tuner card and surround sound. Without a monitor it’s selling for about $2500 and plugs directly into the TV – the bigger the screen the better. You can also add your own monitor and use it as a PC,

Arche sales and marketing manager Darren Smith says problems with the aspect ratio of TV screens make most TV screens unsuitable for normal PC functions but the Media Centre interface gets around this by presenting large icons and on-screen fonts.

Time shift recording

The system constantly records the selected channel, creating a large buffer so viewers can time shift or rewind up to 30 minutes even during recording. You can pre-programme the 6pm news so when you get home at 6.30 it can still be viewed from the beginning. It can also skip the advertisements.

Now Hewlett Packard has released its version of the Digital Media Centre PC with the Intel 915 chipset which is optimised for emerging digital entertainment technology such as high definition video and audio. It has 1-2Gb RAM and 160Gb hard disk. There’s an additional removable hard disk which can be hot swapped with other machines or plugged into a laptop via USB cable.

It has a built-in 802.11 b/g wireless access point, a 9-in-1 card reader for easy upload of photos or files from PDAs or laptops, six USB 2.0 ports and two FireWire ports. The system, also has Intel High Definition Audio 7.1, a music jukebox and Apple iTunes for Windows pre-loaded.

Product manager David Procter says the 160Gb disk allows consumers to store up to 2,600 hours of high-quality music, 180,000 digital photos or up to 160 hours of standard-quality TV.

Future versions may look more like a home electronics components and possibly include additional TV tuners so users can record and watch more than one channel through the system. Currently to watch a channel other than that being recorded you need to revert to the TV controls.

HP Media Center PCs will retail for $4000 including 15 inch LCD monitor. The Personal Media Drive is an additional $500.

Greater convergence ahead

Microsoft is not releasing the Digital Media Centre operating system in New Zealand until it can resolve access to the electronic programming guide (EPG). Wilf Robinson, country head of the Microsoft’s Home Entertainment division is pleased other equipment providers are delivering their own systems but says users will have to rely on hard copy TV guides to programme the recording calendar.

"While early adopters won’t get the full functionality of the on-screen menu because copyright issues are still being worked through at least they’ll be able to see the potential of the new approach."

Meanwhile chipmakers including Intel are now looking at the opportunities of merging the traditional PC with home electronics devices such as the TV, DVD and stereo.

A new generation of devices are already beginning to encroach on this space including Personal Video Recorders (PVR's) which Sky intends to introduce for its subscribers, and DVD recorders and gaming consoles that have huge hard disk capacity and double as set-top boxes or access points for PC or internet driven content.

Sony, Toshiba and Matsushita (Panasonic) have all developed hybrid products such as TV and stereo systems with PC-type features including hard drives and wireless networking.

An important feature of the digital home will be the ability for devices to communicate seamlessly despite components being sourced from different providers. A series of standards known as UPnP (Universal Plug and Play), is now being developed to replace infrared remote control protocols with direct digital control and greater convergence.

This also opens the ways for content to be purchased on-line and moved from the PC to the TV, home theatre or stereo for playback. Of course content owners will want to have some sort of digital rights management (DRM) to ensure their films, video clips, songs, documentaries and other media files are not reproduced illegally or on-sold. This is likely to be built into the media adapters or even into the media itself.

IDC says the home network will be a key component in enabling PC-TV connectivity and

broadband access’ from the last mile to the last room’. However it says the weakest link in enabling this new vision to become reality is the low penetration of broadband in Australia and New Zealand.

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