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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.

If sharing music is your only goal, one of the most elegant systems is the Sonos Digital Music System. You'll need a Sonos ZonePlayer for each room—it can be hooked directly to a pair of speakers as a stand-alone music device, or connected to an input on your stereo or home-theater system. The ZonePlayer can use either wired or wireless networking to access the music stored on your computer, but the wireless networking system is particularly impressive. Using a technology called wireless mesh networking, Sonos overcomes interference problems in a home environment and extends the system range beyond what a conventional wireless network could achieve.

The pièce de résistance is the elegant wireless remote control. With a large, bright LCD screen (the better to display album art) and a scroll-wheel controller that owes more than a nod to the current generation of iPods, it controls any ZonePlayer on the network. Since the remote is a networked device, you don't have to worry about pointing it at the player—just walk around the house, placing music where you please. And the capper: the system is extraordinarily easy to set up. I had two ZonePlayers installed, including the computer software and handheld controller, in a little over half an hour without even opening the manual—just a quick-start poster and the on-screen step-by-step instructions is all it took.

I do have one beef with Sonos. This is not a system for the faint of wallet: $1,199 buys you two ZonePlayers and a controller, with additional ZonePlayers at $499 each. What bugs me is that each ZonePlayer includes its own amplifier (to drive attached speakers) and both wired and wireless networking. So, for the unit that's attached to a home theater system via a wired network, you're investing hundreds of extra dollars for unused capabilities. I'm hoping the company follows up with pared-down player units to fit individual needs, though it has no plans to do so.

Not as deluxe, but still impressive performers, are the Roku SoundBridge products that connect to a stereo system or powered stereo speakers, piping in music from either PCs or Macs over a wired or wireless network. The versions I particularly like (the $500 M2000 and the $250 M1000) boast fluorescent displays that are easy to read from a distance. The only difference between the two models is size—the M1000 is 12 inches wide, the M2000 17 inches wide, with a proportionately larger display.

Getting the Picture

Time to get your TV set involved. Even for listening to music, having a TV display is a very useful proposition, allowing what's known as a "10-foot interface." You sit on the couch 10 feet from the screen, armed with a wireless remote control, and can read the list of available songs, look at album art and even enjoy animated on-screen visualizations that may trigger odd Grateful Dead—concert flashbacks. A TV is also a great way to enjoy photos sociably. Dad's slide projector vanished into the basement's dim recesses long ago, and most would say good riddance, but the sociable experience of watching photos together went with it, and that is a loss. Now, you can conveniently view all your pictures on-screen, along with digitized home movies, and maybe even watch TV shows and movies recorded on the computer or downloaded from the Internet.

ViewSonic, best known for building tack-sharp LCD computer displays, delivers a very polished whole-home media system with the Wireless Media Network. While the two component parts are available separately, it makes sense to combine them in the ViewSonic Wireless Media Kit. The kit includes the Wireless Media Gateway device, which incorporates an 802.11g wireless network router plus a built-in hard drive; anything you store on that drive will be available to any computer on the network. The second piece of the puzzle is a Wireless Media Adapter (with remote control) that hooks up to your TV system. Turn on the Wireless Media Adapter, and a simple menu pops up offering to play back any music, photos or videos stored on the Wireless Media Gateway, plus computer-based files you've chosen to share. Music sounds just fine, and videos streamed over the network to the Media Adapter look surprisingly sharp and clear. The kit lists for $799 (120-gigabyte hard drive) and $699 (80-gigabyte drive).

Roku offers a media gateway product aimed squarely at those who've invested in a high-definition TV. The Roku PhotoBridge HD1000 displays photos in all their high-definition splendor, reading them directly from a memory card (four slots accept CompactFlash, SD cards, MemoryStick and SmartMedia) or over your network (a wired connection is built in, an 802.11b wireless network adapter is optional). This is the only player on the market that supports full 1080i high-def resolution—the display of multi-megapixel images on a plasma screen is nothing short of spectacular. The system also plays MP3 music files plus MPEG2 videos. The video capabilities are particularly interesting if you're the type who understands how to unlock the contents of a DVD disc (it involves a software utility that can be downloaded for free—if I say more, I'm afraid men in black coats may knock at my door, and I'm not talking about Orthodox Jews). The latest version of the PhotoBridge HD software can read "cracked" DVD files, opening up the possibility of creating a hard-drive-based movie library at a very modest price. I'd like to see the company upgrade the wireless networking, which is kind of pokey for the high-resolution files the system can display. Still, at a modest $299, it's hard to argue.

Unsurprisingly, the merry men of Microsoft who took over your office and home computer room would now like to invade the living room as well. The good news is they've created a system that's powerful, easy to use and comprehensive, incorporating everything from music and photos to live TV, DVD playback, radio (both over-the-air and Internet stations) and downloadable entertainment. The bad news is, you probably have to buy a new PC to enjoy it.

Microsoft's answer is a tweaked version of the Windows operating system that effectively turns a computer into a high-powered entertainment hub, without losing any of its core computer capabilities. Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition adds a remote control—operated menu system that organizes all your digital media files in clear, browseable ways. TV watching and recording include pause and rewind functions not unlike a stand-alone digital video recorder, with a downloadable program guide that's free of charge. Choose songs by artist, title or genre or, if you prefer browsing virtual record shelves, scroll through an album-cover display. Same thing with TV movies—poster graphics and information for films can be automatically downloaded for free, which makes looking for a movie to record like a trip to the biggest virtual cineplex ever.

Dozens of Media Center PC models are available from top computer manufacturers, most supporting the full range of operating system capabilities (some low-end models lack a TV tuner, but they're rare). You'll even find laptop models tricked out with full multimedia support. But you can't upgrade an existing PC to run the Media Center software—it's only preinstalled on a Media Center PC.

Since most Media Center PCs look like computers, their Spousal Approval Factor drops dramatically when you want to install one next to the living room HDTV set. A few vendors, though, offer decor-friendly machines with the look of a stereo system component and the guts of a powerful PC. My favorite is Hewlett Packard's Digital Entertainment Center ($2,000) with two built-in TV tuners (record one show while watching another) and the Personal Media Drive, a removable, 160-gigabyte hard drive (in addition to the built-in 200-gigabyte drive) that makes file backup a snap and guarantees you'll never run out of recording space. A model that offers over-the-air HDTV viewing and recording is in the works.

Putting an expensive computer in every room where you'd like media playback is overkill. That's where the Media Center Extender technology comes in. Connect a stand-alone module (the Linksys Dual-Band Wireless A/G Media Center Extender, $300) or a network-attached Xbox game console equipped with the optional Media Center Extender kit ($80) to your TV, and you get the entire Media Center PC experience over the network, complete with wireless remote control. Granted, there are a few annoyances (shows recorded on HBO won't play over the network due to copy protection, for example), but overall it's a very satisfying solution at an affordable price. Up to five Media Center Extenders can be added simultaneously.

For many of us, the jacks on the back of the TV are already used up, with not another square inch in the cabinet to fit yet another high-tech gizmo. In that case, consider a combination platter—a device that combines one audio/video capability from Column A with whole-home media choices from Column B. D-Link's MediaLounge DSM-320RD ($269) consists of a full-featured wireless media player plus a progressive-scan DVD player: one TV connection, one silver cabinet and one remote control funneling all kinds of music, photos, digital video and DVD content to your den or living room. With a built-in 802.11g wireless connection, the DSM-320RD also supports Internet music subscription services from AOL, Napster, Rhapsody and Live365.com.

TiVo's combination strategy recently became substantially more appealing. Since mid-2004, the ability to play music and photos from your computer through a network-attached TiVo unit, and even watch shows recorded on one TiVo through another networked TiVo in your home, has been available at no additional charge to subscribers with Series2 recorders (i.e., recent-vintage stand-alone TiVo units, not the combination TiVo/satellite set-top boxes offered by DirecTV). Now TiVoToGo allows users to watch TiVo recordings on their networked PCs, and even burn the shows to a DVD with optional MyDVD software from Sonic Solutions. The free TiVo Desktop software and instructions are found on the company Web site (www.tivo.com). Since the TiVo unit has a built-in hard drive, it has an advantage over competing solutions when it comes to streaming TV shows over a wireless network: when you click play on a networked program, the system stores some of the program to the hard drive before beginning playback. This causes some initial delay (depending on your network speed, it can be a few seconds to a couple of minutes), but eliminates annoying glitches while maintaining high video resolution that more than makes up for the holdup.

Finally, from Philips, there's the ultimate one-stop-shopping solution: a TV with built-in networked entertainment. The first model to incorporate this feature is the Streamium 23P9976i ($1,999), a 23-inch LCD set that connects to your home network to access music, pictures and video from your computer and (through a deal with Yahoo) music, music videos, photos and movie trailers over the Internet. The company plans to expand its "Connected Planet" line of TVs this year, with a 42-inch LCD set ($5,499) due in September and 42- and 50-inch plasma sets ($3,999 and 5,499, respectively) in June.

Steve Morgenstern is a freelance writer living in New York.

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