Orchestrating the digital living room

Can entertainment devices really talk to one another? It's an appealing idea, but ...

You're watching the "Friends" finale on TV when you remember that you're waiting for an urgent e-mail. No need to get up. You set the TV to record, switch the screen to the Internet, and respond to your message. After watching the rest of "Friends," you switch the screen back to your computer, where you're organizing a slide show of pictures from your Alaska vacation last summer. You pipe in a little Jimmy Buffett cruising music from your CD collection, which you have stored on the PC.

That's a taste of "convergence" or "the digital home," buzzwords that stand for having a house full of digital devices that talk to one another and easily send video, audio, or other information wherever you want them.

It's an enticing prospect. "We quickly get the idea of connectivity. It doesn't take much selling," says Brian Cooley, editor at large at CNET (www.cnet.com), an Internet site that reviews thousands of high-tech products.

"More people want the ability to have their content available anytime, anywhere, and on any device," says Louis Burns, a vice president of Intel Corp., the world's largest computer chipmaker, which has a big stake in the success of "the digital home."

"They want to wirelessly transfer MP3 files from a PC in the den so they can listen to them on their stereo in the family room; they want to view digital photos on their big-screen TV, or to watch video content on hand-held wireless devices."

To see what the convergence buzz was all about, I took a test-drive of a Gateway Family Room Media Center or FMC 901 ($999), a PC that runs Microsoft's Windows XP Media Center Edition operating system. (The Yankee Group, which watches the home electronics industry, projects that 22 percent of PCs sold in the US in 2007 are going to be media center PCs.) Gateway let me borrow one, and I took it home. Opening the box, I found a sleek metallic box with cool blue lights on its controls, meant to look like a VCR, DVD player, or stereo receiver, something that belongs in your living room or den.

It's actually much more. It works happily with devices like digital cameras and MP3 players, records TV shows onto its hard drive, plays or records DVDs, pulls music off the Internet (a one-month free trial to Napster.com is included), and plays video games. Many functions are controlled with a TV-type remote. With its wireless keyboard and mouse, the FMC 901 is also a all-purpose PC, capable of working on word processing or surfing the Internet.

So, was it wonderful?

Actually, it reminded me of Longfellow's poem about the little girl with a curl on her forehead: "When she was good/ She was very, very good/ But when she was bad she was horrid." Once the system was set up and operating, it was a lot of fun and fairly intuitive to use. But before long, either I did something to throw it off or it mysteriously balked on its own.

CNET's Cooley suggests that users' experiences may be determined by the world from which they approach the project. People accustomed to working with PCs, he says, "expect to have to fiddle with a system to get it to work right." But he concedes they are in the minority. Most people still expect to bring home a piece of consumer electronics, which this is trying to be, plug in a wire or two, and use it.

My experience was a lot more complicated than that. Let's start with connecting the PC to the TV.

My decade-old 27-inch set doesn't have any of the modern inputs on the back to make the connection. At the very least, an S-video line is needed. Rather than suggesting a way to work around the problem, Gateway came up with what it called a better idea: Why not sample our 30-inch wide-screen, flat-panel LCD TV ($2,499.99) and really see what the FMC 901 can do?

Two more large boxes containing the TV and its own remote speakers arrived.

Conclusion No. 1: Adding a piece of electronics is like buying a new carpet. It's not long before you realize the sofa, armchairs, and drapes now look drab. It's called "obsolescence": You're in danger of discovering that your stereo and TV set are considered antiques.

Now I needed to bring the Internet into the system. My broadband connection was in an upstairs office, where we use our computer. My cable TV box was in the downstairs family room, where I wanted to install the FMC 901. I needed to be connected to both to make it work.

Running a wire between the floors was possible but complicated and expensive (if you hired an electrician). Hooking them up using a wireless router ($149.98) was hip (look Ma, no wires!) - and the wave of the future (the Yankee Group estimates that by 2008 there'll be about 37 million networked homes). It also meant that other devices in the house could tap in to the network, too, such as a notebook computer (if I had one).

My brother-in-law Tim, a tech-savvy customer service manager for a computer company, had just set up a wireless network in his house and agreed to set up mine.

But what, in theory, should have taken only a few minutes took hours. The signal strength was low or nonexistent. He tried changing the channel the devices used to communicate. We moved the wireless antennas around the family room, searching for a decent signal.

Even after we got it working, it tended to cut out from time to time for still unknown reasons (other wireless signals in the area, such as cordless phones, can sometimes be the culprit).

Conclusion No. 2: For most people, setting up a PC-based media center is going to involve at least two projects: (1) setting up a wireless network in your home and (2) connecting up to the TV and its video source, such as a cable box.

As Tim continued to help me, seemingly little things became obstacles that took minutes or even hours to figure out. A picture finally emerged on the beautiful big screen (note to readers: Remember to turn on the TV as well as the computer). Hurrah! The FMC 901 was booting up. Double hurrahs! But wait, where was the sound?

Eventually, Tim figured out it hadn't been turned on yet. Later, when we tried to upgrade from the S-video to a higher-resolution RGB computer monitor cable between the TV and computer, we lost the sound again. The audio had to be piped in a different way. Another cable. "Really annoying design," Tim muttered.

In all, Tim spent close to eight hours helping me. But, being a computer guy, he wasn't discouraged.

In fact, he'd like to get a media center - after the price comes down. "Even at $999, it costs more than your TV and my TV," he says. "I think there is some unwritten rule that you should spend at least as much on your TV as you do on the stuff to drive your TV."

Nonetheless, he says, "I definitely think this is the way we are going to be doing things. Recording a movie on anything other than a hard drive is going to seem like horse-and-buggy days. You'll only record to a DVD if you want to bring the movie with you."

But what do you do if you want to set up a family media center and you're not a computer whiz - or know one? There's a "whole burgeoning market right now for people who do high-tech handyman stuff," Cooley says. In the fall, CNET will begin offering a list of what it's calling "home integrators" who'll come to your house, install your electronic devices, and make sure they talk to each other properly.

"People really do want this stuff. They do want convergence," Cooley says. It's a case of marrying the worlds of PCs and consumer electronics (TVs, stereos), which "have different ethics," he says.

The PC industry is all about the potential of new hardware to do new things. The consumer-electronics industry is much more conservative, he says. "They're all about ease of use."

Setting some industry standards will be a part of the solution, just as when automakers agreed that a car's accelerator pedal is always under your right foot. Whoever can make these two worlds live together comfortably will win customers, he says. "Convenience always wins."

Which means, according to some seers, eventually even the wireless mouse and remote control need to give way to some sort of voice-recognition system. (Maybe we'll give our media centers names: "Hal, record all coming episodes of 'The Apprentice.' "Hal, show me my new e-mails.")

We aren't there yet - but I can see how media centers are going to be a lot of fun, once a few more hassles are eliminated.

The digital revolution: Coming to a computer near you?

Today's PC and Internet users want to share media among their digital home devices, such as DVD and CD players, computers, TVs, and hand-held wireless devices. Here is what people say they're looking for:

• 39 percent of PC households are interested in installing a home network in order to view photos on any TV or PC.

• 33 percent are interested in downloading movies and sharing them among the devices they own.

• 31 percent would like to download music and share it among devices.

• 28 percent are interested in sending video between devices in the home.

• 21 percent of US households want to use their PCs for digital video recording.

Market researchers have estimated that 35 million devices are currently connected in home entertainment networks. By the end of 2007, it's expected that 183 million devices will be connected in home entertainment networks. That's a compound annual growth rate of 65 percent.

Sources: Intel, the Yankee Group, Park Associates, CED

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