Shift Happens

The home-entertainment landscape is about to change forever. Are you prepared?

 

Living in earthquake country, I understand the importance of being prepared for the inevitable shakers that rumble through the region from time to time. These events have reshaped the landscape of Southern California, but that’s nothing compared with the coming upheaval in the world of home entertainment. The foundation of that world is about to shift dramatically, changing the assumptions we’ve all made for so long. To prepare for this shift, we must understand the nature of the new terrain and what it means for anyone interested in audio and video.

Among those drawing the new map are Intel and Microsoft, two computercentric companies that know a good—and profitable—thing when they see one. As more people gain high-speed access to the Internet, these two companies envision new ways to get digital content to those consumers. And once that content is in the home, new networking technologies will make it easy to distribute and play on a wide variety of devices.

To that end, Intel is giving consumer-electronics manufacturers development funds to design the next generation of home-entertainment products (using Intel chips, of course!). And Microsoft is busily designing software to manage and distribute the growing glut of content, so consumers can easily find what they want and enjoy it wherever they are. CRYSTAL BALL

Changing Architecture

As with buildings in earthquake country, certain changes must be made to the architecture of home-entertainment systems in order to survive the coming shift. The old way of doing things just won’t cut it any more: Systems with separate components (disc players, digital video recorders, tuners, etc.) strung together with many different types of audio and video cables (both analog and digital) are very complicated and confusing. And if you want to distribute audio and/or video to several rooms around the house, you can expect an order of magnitude more bumps along the way. The new architecture solves many of these problems with the integration made possible by today’s computer platforms. Instead of separate physical components, the various functions of home entertainment can be performed by different modules within a single box, and the connections between those modules are made internally by software.

The digital content, which is stored in the same box on hard drives and other forms of memory, can then be streamed around the home to so-called “client” devices in different rooms, allowing you to watch and listen to anything you want wherever you happen to be. As a result, the box is often called a media server, because it centralizes the storage of media content and serves that content to various locations.

How will the consumer experience change in this new world? The hardware is likely to be easier to set up, with fewer physical connections to make. The software, however, could be more difficult to configure, though the use of software “wizards” might mitigate that problem.

Once the system is set up, it should provide a much more integrated experience than we’re used to, providing a unified user interface to access all types of content. On the downside, there is likely to be a greater chance of system crashes, at least in the early stages of the transition; we’re talking about computers, after all! Many custom installers claim that current computer-based systems are very difficult to support, but don’t forget that these systems are in their infancy and will evolve and mature like any other technology.

Bedrock

The foundation of the new home-entertainment architecture is the hardware, which can take two forms: a more-orless conventional PC, or a dedicated unit such as the Hewlett-Packard Digital Entertainment Center (DEC), which is a Windows PC in a case that looks much like a normal A/V component. Both approaches are often generically called Media Center PCs or Home Theater PCs (HTPCs).

Dedicated units are perhaps more readily and widely acceptable as entertainment devices, but they are often not upgradeable with hardware cards and the like. By contrast, the functionality of a PC can be easily expanded via card slots, though many people want nothing to do with PCs when they are away from the office.

Either way, the device needs a central processor with plenty of clock speed (around 2.5GHz minimum); the higher the speed, the more things the media server can do simultaneously, such as stream different programs to different locations, record one program while playing another, etc. Also critical is hard-disk space; again, the more, the merrier. This is especially important with high-definition content, which can consume up to 10GB per hour of material (using MPEG-2 encoding).

Aside from the processor and hard-disk storage, there are other functional elements that must be present within the box. In order to acquire content from the Internet (including software updates), the media server must have an Ethernet port or WiFi to connect to the home’s router. Of course, this is now nearly ubiquitous in all modern PCs.

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