I'm not really sure
who coined the phrase "the digital home," but it's been around a while. It seems like once or twice a year, companies such as Microsoft, Sony, and Intel dress up spaces here in New York to show off how a sample digital home might look with their current and future products installed. I get to test some of these products in the course of my work, but truth be told, I'd never really tried to put all these pieces of the puzzle together in an actual home environment. Like many people, I'd done a little here, a little there, but the whole thing just had a patchwork feel to it, with nothing in the way of a master plan.
Fittingly, then, having recently renovated a new apartment, I decided it was the perfect opportunity to start with a clean slate--to build a real cybercrib from the ground up. Here are some highlights and lessons learned from the construction, which was done mostly with off-the-shelf products.
Start at the nexus
Any bona fide digital home has to have a junction where all your wires meet, one that's invisible but also easily accessible. The crossroads of my home network lives in the front coat closet, which happens to be a central location in my apartment. On a shelf not far from the ceiling, I have the three pieces of gear that comprise the command post of my networking army: the cable modem, the 802.11g wireless router, and the Vonage VoIP box. Those three devices are plugged into a surge-protected power strip that's fed from an electrical socket in the ceiling. Through a hole in a small ceiling access panel runs the cable TV line--which attaches, naturally, to the cable modem--as well as a phone line, which is connected to the Vonage box (see next paragraph for details). If you were to open the door to the access panel, a terrifying jumble of cables would come tumbling out like some hideous insect with too many legs. But once you get the whole thing set up, all the scary stuff lives in the ceiling, hidden from view.
A couple of notes about Vonage
: With a little help from a freelance phone technician, I was able to Vonage-enable every phone jack in my apartment. The company recommends that you connect only a single telephone to its network adapter, but you can tap into all your jacks with some simple yet creative wiring. Additionally, certain TiVo units can't use Vonage to make their daily calls to get updated programming schedules, but my first-generation unit didn't have a problem.
Mixing wired with wireless
The centerpiece of today's digital home is a wireless network, preferably of the 802.11g variety, which allows you to stream video and transfer large files between computers faster than the comparatively poky 802.11b Wi-Fi standard. However, I wanted some wired connectivity in the mix, partially as a reliable backup in case the wireless network went on the blink, partially because my wireless coverage was spotty in one room--but mostly because I didn't feel like paying Apple's typically exorbitant premium for the AirPort cards needed to wirelessly connect my two Macs. (I also have a Windows desktop and laptop in the mix.)
Lacking the sort of in-wall Ethernet wiring found in some newer office buildings (and homes), I went with a couple of power-line bridges
, which cost around $50 to $60 apiece and turned out to be quite impressive in their simplicity and flexibility. I plugged one into the free power socket on the ceiling near my networking closet, connected it to the router with a single Ethernet cable, and plugged the second power-line bridge into a wall socket on the other side of the apartment (you can't plug it into a power strip, only into the socket itself). With just an Ethernet cable--and without any software installation--my Mac in that room was connected to the Internet. Total setup time: 3 minutes.
The nice thing about Ethernet power-line bridges--I've been using models made by Belkin and Netgear (and yes, you can mix and match brands if they're HomePlug compliant)--is that you can simply unplug the thing from the socket and move it to another to add Internet connectivity to that room. The knock against them has been that the data-transfer speeds are relatively slow compared to the 100-megabit rate of native Ethernet connections, but recent firmware improvements have pushed speeds up into the 10- to 12-megabit range. That's comparable to 802.11b's data-transfer rate, and it's more than enough bandwidth for broadband Web browsing, most file transfers, and streaming audio.
Whole-house networked entertainment
So, now you have a nice, neat network infrastructure in place; it's time to have some fun with it. In my case, I wanted to get music from the desktop PC in my home office to play on my home-theater system in my living room. I'm using Creative's Sound Blaster Wireless Music, though I also have my Xbox running Microsoft's Music Mixer software, which enables access to my PC's music files and digital photos. Because my living-room audio system also hooks into a set of kitchen speakers, I can stream music from my computer to that room as well. And thanks to the Creative's unique LCD-enabled RF remote, I can browse music and switch songs from either room.
On top of that, I have a second Xbox in my bedroom (why not, they cost only $149), so I can stream music from my PC to a more modest stereo setup in that room (I use another wired, power-line bridge in the bedroom) or go head-to-head against a buddy who's playing on the Xbox in the living room. In turn, the bedroom stereo also powers speakers in the master bathroom, so the apartment is blanketed with ample digital audio options. High-quality streaming video, of course, is the next step, but despite a handful of notable exceptions
, the necessary equipment tends to be less fully developed than the audio-only counterparts. That said, I have, on occasion, watched a televised baseball game wirelessly streamed onto my laptop using the MLB.TV
The cost of digital domestic bliss
As the previous paragraph might indicate, I'm well on my way to digital home bliss. With all the networked-this/wireless-that products arriving every month, I'll have plenty of opportunities to upgrade to slicker, more feature-rich gear sooner than I'd probably like. However, I've noticed one downside to decking out my digital home: a major uptick in my electric bill, which came in at close to $250 last month. Tack a $125 cable bill (TV and broadband Internet) onto the whole schmear, and you're looking at pretty serious layout--we're talking car payment--to support this digital home habit. Ouch. Despite advice to the contrary, guess I should turn off my computer--and all its various networking hangers-on--after all.