It must also have TV tuners, ideally including NTSC, ATSC (for over-the-air HDTV broadcasts), QAM (for unscrambled digital cable), and CableCARD (for scrambled digital cable). It might even be possible to install a DBS satellite-receiver expansion card. A related requirement is a video processor, which converts all video signals to the resolution of the display being fed by the media server, and a real-time codec (coder/decoder) that compresses signals for streaming around the home.
Naturally, a media server must have a full complement of A/V connections, including RF (radio-frequency) inputs for the TV tuners; HDMI/DVI, component-, S-, and (ugh!) composite-video outputs; and analog and digital audio outputs. It could also have various video and audio inputs to import signals from external devices, but this will become less and less important as these devices are no longer needed.
Finally, it must have an optical-disc drive that can play and record any and all types of shiny silver discs. These include CDs, DVDs, and whatever next-generation disc format wins the war: HD DVD or Blu-ray. Ideally, any content on the hard disk should be able to be digitally copied onto an optical disc for archiving, but this presents some serious problems in terms of content protection.
The only other hardware needed in the new digital home is one or more video displays and audio systems (processor/power amp or A/V receiver and speakers), which some have called “rendering systems” because they render the content in a form that humans can enjoy. Each rendering system in the home must be accompanied by a client device that connects to the media server, which sends the desired content to the client via one or another type of connection (more in a moment). The client might have an audio processor and power amp built in to reduce the number of separate rendering devices in each location.
Of course, hardware is nothing more than an expensive boat anchor without software, which must be completely bulletproof, like most conventional consumer-electronics devices today. Yes, I know, that’s a pipe dream at the moment, but computer software is getting better all the time, and it must strive for that goal if these new systems are to thrive in the new landscape. With Intel and Microsoft at the helm, it’s no wonder that Windows is the operating system of choice for media servers. The current version designed specifically for HTPCs is Windows XP Media Center Edition; the next
major upgrade, called Windows Vista (previously codenamed Longhorn), will probably use Windows Media Connect v.2 to handle media-specific tasks when it’s released in 2006.
Of more immediate importance to end users are the applications, such as digital video recording (à la TiVo) and a comprehensive electronic program guide that lists the available content from any and all sources (cable, terrestrial, satellite, etc.) and allows you to select what you want to watch or record. Also critical is an integrated Web browser to find and download online content as well as to find more information about something you might see in a TV program or commercial.
Consumers must be completely shielded from Windows or any other indication that they’re dealing with a computer. A user-friendly “shell” is essential for the success of all media servers. The primary physical interface will be some sort of wireless “air mouse,” such as the Acoustic Research Gyration, to navigate menus, and a wireless keyboard for Web surfing. Using RF or Bluetooth technology instead of IR (infrared) will allow users in other rooms to access and control their content with a similar air mouse and keyboard.
Fault Lines Once you have a media server in place, it’s time to fill it with content. Conventional delivery systems, such as cable, satellite, and terrestrial over-the-air, will remain important for a long time to come, which is why a media server should have tuners for these signals.
Another delivery vehicle, broadband Internet access, is becoming more and more important, and a Media Center PC is ideally suited to gather content from this source. Granted, most media downloading is currently focused on audio MP3 files, which are small enough to allow fast transfers. Standard-definition video files are relatively large, and high-def files are enormous, which means they require long download times, even with a broadband connection. But compression codecs are becoming more efficient, leading to smaller file sizes, and broadband connections are getting faster, so we should see an increasing amount of video content available online in the next few years.
How is material stored on the media server distributed around the house? The most common method today is Ethernet, the basis for virtually all home networks; the material is encoded and sent over the network to the desired client device. But Ethernet was not designed for media streaming, and the same network carries a lot of other data traffic: Web surfing, print jobs, file transfers from one computer to another, etc. If this traffic interrupts the media stream (which it certainly can), the program suffers a hiccup, which most people find unacceptable.