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Cool, Calm, Connected

Whole-home entertainment delivers the digital promise of shared music, photos, video and more
Steve Morgenstern
From the Print Edition:
Jimmy Smits, May/June 2005

One by one, the sights and sounds of our lives leave the clutter of shelves and shoeboxes and contract into tidy digital form on capacious computer hard drives. So why does enjoying them have to be so…ah…analog? I still buy music on CD, but 98 percent of the time, I listen to MP3 files created from the discs. An enthusiastic photographer, I jumped to digital the moment image quality was high enough to suit my needs, happily giving up the per-shot film cost that made me shudder before hitting the shutter. My excruciatingly unedited home movies get transferred onto the computer for slicing and dicing. Even TV viewing went the hard-drive route, driven by the TiVo-licious convenience of pausing live TV, simplified recording and movie storage that doesn't involve a stack of tapes.

With all these digitized pleasures existing in an enormous virtual bucket of bits and bytes, I burn to unleash them from the shackles of individual disk drives to flit around the house on command. If I'm sitting in my living room and want to enjoy a song, digital photo album or video stored on my home-office computer, should I have to walk upstairs? No, I want push-button access to my audiovisual library, and what's more, I don't want to spend a fortune on guys with clipboards, business cards and superior attitudes to set up the system.

Let's make it happen.

Job One: The Network

Odds are you've already ponied up for a broadband connection to your home. Unless you're on your own at home, getting a broadband connection and setting up a network to share it pretty much go hand in hand. (See "Networking: Know Your ABGs" on page 170 for the fundamentals.) Once a network is established, you can move media in two ways: share files between computers or share files with noncomputer digital devices designed to play back your media, either standing on their own or connected to a TV or stereo system.

The easiest way is simply to use the network to copy files from machine to machine. Once I would have sneered at anyone who'd take this approach. After all, keeping separate copies on each machine means wasting precious hard-drive space. Today, the gargantuan capacity of the hard drives built into even run-of-the-mill computers trumps that techno-snob gripe. Music and photo files can barely make a dent. I have roughly 10,000 songs stored on my system—the whole shebang takes up less than 30 gigabytes. You can hardly find a computer sold today with less than an 80-gigabyte hard drive, so most of us have become digital real estate barons. Copying media through the home network not only ensures flawless playback—uninterrupted by network snafus—it also provides a backup copy.

On the other hand, keeping all your media files on one hard drive that is shared on the network saves a lot of work. You copy a new music or photo file to one computer and everyone can access it immediately. Any update you make—putting all the photos of the new puppy in a single folder, for example—has to be done only once. And large collections of high-resolution images or video recordings can still gobble enough gigabytes to make storing copies on everyone's individual hard disk both time-consuming and wasteful.

But what if you don't want to leave a computer with a media-filled hard drive running all the time? Or your primary machine is a laptop that isn't always connected to the network? Add a self-contained hard drive. Called Network Attached Storage, or NAS, this concept had its roots in office networking, but has spread into homes at reasonable prices. One of my favorite solutions is the $99 Linksys Network Storage Link. First, you connect any USB external hard drive to the Network Storage Link, then you connect the Link device to your network router. The new drive is now available to every computer attached to the network. I've been using the Linksys with a 250-gigabyte external hard drive from Maxtor ($280) to store all my media files for the past few months, as well as to share its enormous capacity with the family. Backing up documents is now as simple as dragging and dropping an extra copy to the network drive.

Tech Invades the Living Room

Sharing files between computers is nothing new—it's simple corporate technology moving into our increasingly technocentric homes. You access them with mouse and keyboard. But enjoying digital media by reaching for a remote control is a more specialized challenge. Several traditional consumer electronics companies have tried and failed to create the fabled "digital library." However, some new solutions—offered by tech giants like Microsoft and smart startups like Sonos—can successfully deliver whole-home entertainment at the click of a remote.

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