CNET.com: Home entertainment networking
For too long, your PC and home entertainment center have led separate lives. But they don't have to be strangers living in the same house anymore.
You have several relatively simple and inexpensive options for connecting them into a whole home entertainment solution, giving you the best of both worlds. The PC makes it significantly easier to discover, download, and manage digital media. But the living room is right place to fully enjoy TV, music, movies, or photos on a big screen backed up with a full-bodied surround-sound speaker system. The only requirements are a decent computer, a broadband connection, either a wired or wireless home network, and a few hours of setup time.
If you already have a desktop or notebook with Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005, you have another option: Media Center extenders. Or if you'd rather leave the work to someone else, take a look at our new Home Integrator Directory to find a local expert who can help you choose and install a home entertainment solution.
Upside: These standalone components connect to your stereo or home-theater system and piggyback on your existing home network to stream digital media from your PC. Many are dedicated audio devices, but a growing number will display video files and digital photos on your TV as well. They generally have a remote and a small LCD, and many provide for onscreen TV navigation. Most take a range of open file formats, and support is expanding for streaming premium content. Real's Rhapsody service is available on a growing list of devices, and compatibility for streaming secure files purchased from Microsoft-affiliated media vendors is on the rise (look for the PlaysForSure logo).
Downside: Almost no devices support streaming music purchased from the No. 1 online music destination, Apple's iTunes Music Store (see "Digital media adapters" below for the sole exception). And few devices support intuitive file navigation--you'll often have to walk over to squint at a small LCD across the room or flip your TV to an unused A/V input just to find your favorite song.
Forecast: Digital media receivers have been on the market for a while. There are many to choose from, but they have yet to really catch on. Ultimately, you won't need a separate component to get these features; already they are being incorporated into TVs, DVD players/recorders, gaming consoles, and other established consumer electronics.
Downside: You can control the AirPort Express only from the PC; there are no LCD, remote, or buttons on the unit itself. (The Linksys Wireless B has a remote, however.) These are primarily designed for digital audio; features that give you the option of streaming video and photo features are limited or nonexistent.
Forecast: The AirPort Express is a unique, versatile little gadget that appeals to a wide range of users. But as a category, these wireless media adapters are too limited and, like the more powerful digital media receivers, will ultimately be replaced by smart TVs, DVD players/recorders, and other consumer electronics.
Downside: The obvious downside is that this option requires a desktop or a notebook running Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005. Though it will work over 802.11g, Microsoft recommends 802.11a for best results. The wireless extenders currently do not support HDTV, even though Media Center does. Finally, we found the streaming video quality in early units to be unsatisfactory.
Forecast: It's too early to tell. Media Center junkies will love these extenders because they solve a big problem with earlier versions. Now you can watch TV (and record it with Media Center's built-in DVR), listen to music, and display photos anywhere in the home. But Microsoft still has to work out some rough edges, and it will take more than extenders to win over a sizable swath of Windows XP Home users.
Downside: The networking features are free (TiVo no longer charges for its Home Media Option), but you still pay a monthly or lifetime fee for ReplayTV and TiVo. But some setup and accessories will be required. You'll need either a wired or wireless USB adapter to connect the TiVo Series2; and while the ReplayTV 5500 series has an Ethernet port, you'll still need a bridge if you want to connect wirelessly. Though they offer unparalleled TV features, DVRs can't always match the digital audio and photo features found in competing convergence devices: TiVos can't handle WMA or Rhapsody music, for instance, and ReplayTVs don't do audio streaming at all. Not all DVRs support the networking features, most notably the DirecTiVo satellite receiver units.
Forecast: DVRs are really just stripped-down computers, so adding network capabilities was a no-brainer. But DVRs tend to be a bit less flexible in terms of file support. Then again, many of the "generic" DVRs people are getting for free from their cable company don't support network capabilities at all.
Downside: You'll find limited support for audio and video file formats, as well as online music stores. If wireless is not built in, you'll need a bridge for the Ethernet jack to connect to your 802.11a/b/g network. Finally, choices are currently limited; there aren't many networkable units out there.
Forecast: Adding network capabilities to DVD players is a natural progression. The uptake has been slow so far, but more manufacturers are slowly but surely jumping on the bandwagon. Look for network-enabled DVD players (as well as A/V receivers and home-theater systems) to become less of an exception and more of a commodity.
Downside: It's limited to digital audio: no streaming video or photos. And despite the "boombox" form factor, most models are strictly AC-powered--don't expect to lug them around the 'hood. As with all boomboxes, the sound quality is relatively poor, but you can usually connect them to the better speakers of your home stereo, though that tends to obviate the whole point.
Forecast: If you can find a model that also has the basics--AM/FM radio and CD--these can be a cool way to bring digital audio to a bedroom or a kitchen. But this is really a niche market, and these boomboxes hardly deliver a complete digital entertainment solution. Though who knows; perhaps when Wi-Max arrives, we'll once again see people walking around the street with boomboxes on their shoulders.