HOME Technology 2005
Wireless for sound and vision
Components compete for digital home

Equipping your home for the emerging digital revolution requires planning, especially if you want to bring all your audio visual and computing components into a single environment that can be managed from the comfort of your lounge.

Itís clear the home electronics business is in full battle mode, regularly adding to the artillery of gadgets and devices that promise to enhance your home entertainment experience.

Retail floors filled with liquid crystal display (LCD) and Plasma TVs that can handle PC and web content, and an array of add-on boxes such as games consoles, personal video recorders (PVRs), sound surround systems and wireless routers are enough to make your head spin.

A pivotal convergence point with the television is Microsoftís XP Media Centre which is transforming the PC from a desktop appliance into an entertainment server. As well as normal computing functions it gives you greater control over all your digital content, including the ability to record from the TV and access stored or on-line music.

The Media Centre interface throws up large screen icons on the TV for easy viewing from the couch as you click through the options with a wireless controller. By browsing on-line you can save favourite ĎTV enhancedí web locations for any services you might want to access. For example on-line data about the movie or music you are playing will help you compile playlists. Individual preferences can be stored for each member of the family.

Click the My Movies icon for a DVD or stored movie; My Music lets you order, manage and programme your own favourite sounds and My TV lets you record TV or call up programmes from the hard disk at will. In fact Media Centre challenges many of the devices now competing for customer attention, including the DVD recorder and sound system.

Liam Gunson hardware analyst with IDC Research says the whole home network and Media Centre scenario might sound very attractive but if itís not marketed properly it could scare people off. The real demand he suggests will occur when people acquire so much digital content they need better management for digital photos, movies, access to web sites configured for the TV screen, home security and music files such as those downloaded from Digirama and Coke Fridge.

Itís all still very new to the New Zealand marketplace, he says. It will require

strong uptake for broadband internet and more use of legitimate download sites. "People arenít going to replace their entire suite of home electronics. It has to work with their existing TV and sound system. Some high end devices will take care of everything but at the low end youíll still need your amplifier for surround sound and to add a wireless card."

And while the large flat screen TV set will typically remain the centre of attention, smart home networks will enable content to be delivered to different rooms for different reasons, for example internet access on a laptop or PC while streaming music to the home entertainment system.

Of course you need a wireless hub to begin with. An entry level modem from D-Link for example connects DSL internet access to your home with four ports to connect to other PCs and a wireless access point ($120-$150). Wireless speed is usually up to 54Mbit/sec over distances of up to 100 metres line of sight but is sensitive to walls, concrete and moving objects. At the next level you might pay about $200 to get 108 Mb/sec throughput. Beyond that thereís the D-Link DI-634M Wireless Router with MIMO (multiple input, multiple output) at around $360 ensuring optimal speed and quality over 100metres.

Connecting your notebook computer to your wireless DSL router is a good starting place to get a feel for the home network. Itíll free you up to work in the lounge or out on the deck, while remaining connected to all your essential files and your web browser.

As we become more involved in the digital revolution, its inevitable that the amount of content we create, download or record is going to grow exponentially. Your DVD hard disk recorder or even the hard disk on your Media Centre PC will need to be managed carefully to keep space free. Archival and back-up will become imperative, requiring additional storage space. Thatís why the type of solution previously seen only in large businesses is starting to find its way into some homes.

At the most basic level you can simply attach an external hard drive to your PC. But why not opt for the speediest delivery by attaching disks directly to your router for network attached storage (NAS). D-Link has just released the DI-624S storage router with two USB ports for around $270. This is a hint of the future where on-demand will increasingly become the order of the day, as we store now and view later; building up libraries of our favourite music, movies, documentaries, TV programmes and photos.

And as you store more data the pressure comes on home network performance and the ability to serve content up quickly to meet the on-demand imperative. With a D-Link Gaming Routers ($360-$400) for example, you can be connected at gigabit speeds between your DSL modem and gigabit cards in the back of three or four PCs or laptops. If you wanting to play on-line the GameFuel quality of service (QoS) capability will protect gaming traffic or voice over IP from latency and lag caused when others are sharing the connection.

Currently even listening to a radio station on-line or streaming short films or TV news will quickly blow the data cap on most internet accounts and incur significant additional cost on top of monthly access fees.

Pivotal to the success of Media Centre and other approaches to sharing data around the home, is the speed of access and the cost of additional data. If and when internet service providers (ISPs) are in a position to drop the data caps on their accounts then downloading music and video clips, and streaming video or radio stations will finally become economical.

A further glimpse of the future is indicated by Telecom which is ramping up the capabilities of its network to cope with television quality signal and increasing the capacity of its copper to bring up to 15Mbit/sec and greater into the home within the next two years. It is experimenting with a range of technologies including Microsoftís IP TV, which will deliver high quality TV and movie programming over copper telephone lines. In the US and other parts of the world this is already being seen as the successor to cable TV and the logical upgrade or replacement for other digital TV options.

Within the next 2-3 years the digital home will become a real-time node on the high speed global network, delivering voice, video-on-demand, streaming audio and video, lightning speed internet access and a wide range of other on-line services.

  Back2front      General Interest Webzine