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Digital Home options for PC2TV

Sony Vaio TP-1 Mac Mini Xbox 360
An effective architecture for the Digital Home requires two main elements: a centralized shared storage for media files, and a Media Player that connects to each of the displays at home: TVs, LCD, Plasma screens in different rooms.

We reviewed the shared storage for media, be it a NAS or a desktop PC, in a previous post. This one will show the Media Player alternatives to ‘connect’ our content from the storage to the TV set.

We will categorize the Media Player options in four:

– Home Theater PC (HTPC): Fiire (Linux MCE), Vaio TP-1 (Windows Media Center), Mac Mini (Apple Front Row)
Pros
Future proof solution. Support for any codec. Full control on sofware and hardware configuration.
Can use as PVR with a TV card (internal o external)
Can be used as shared storage with laptops or other Media players at home
Additional functionality on the TV (Web access, Video conference, home surveillance, games…)

Cons:
Higher cost

– Network Media Player: Linux MCE frontend, Kiss DVD Ethernet Player, D-Link Wireless Media Player, Apple TV
Pros:
Lower cost
Device optimized for specific use
Ease of use

Cons:
Lack of upgradeability. Limited codec support.
Apple TV only supports H.264
No PVR (Exception: KiSS models with PVR function)

– Game Console: Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3
Pros:
Hi-Def game console with great games!
Cost effective
You can install Linux on the PS3, and run as a Linux PC

Cons:
SW controlled by Microsoft or Sony
Limited support for codecs. Many of the files in your library will not play or will require transcoding with loss of quality

– Media Jukebox: TVIX
Pros:
Lower cost
Combined Storage with Media Player in one box
Device optimized for specific use

Cons:
No control on software for adding features or codec support
No distributed architecture with a shared storage

Note that any PC or laptop can work as a Media Player, but those are far from ideal to connect to a TV set: a laptop being mobile implies connect and disconnect cables, and a normal PC might not have HDMI, or SPIF audio, required for a full HD experience.

Other factors to consider for the election:

If you have a large library of XVD/DivX and rip DVDs or get your copies by P2P file sharing, a HTPC Linux MCE or Windows MCE are the preferred choices, unless you want to transcode your library to H.264 to get your content on Apple devices

Note for Apple Addicts:
Apple products are great: great stylish design, simple easy-to-use and high quality operation (it simply works).
Apple tends to design products their way, without compromises. That is, even if Windows Media, XVid and DivX formats have a wide acceptance, none of Apple products support these by default. Instead Apple selects high quality standars (H.264 for video and AAC for audio) and bring them to the masses.
Apple is creating a loyal clientelle of Applemaniacs, who do not mind to pay a higher price because , even if ‘locked’ with Apple choice of standards, all Apple products interwork nicely with each other. The user do not need to worry about technology. Apple takes care of that for you. Apple makes smooth even to pay for songs, videos or movie rentals.

NAS: The new device for home

As we anticipated in our 2008 predictions, the demand for Network-Attached Storage (NAS) devices at home is rapidly increasing.

Apple announcement of Time Capsule, even if not a proper NAS, goes into that direction.

There are two trends we all recognize in our digital style-life:

1) An increasing number of media files (photos, music and videos) that we handle in our computers media libraries. Movies and songs are downloaded on-line. DVDs and CDs are ripped to digital media libraries. No more room for space-consuming DVD/CD physical libraries. And no room for the hassle of inserting discs. Personalized playlists and jukebox-like operation is the rule.

2) The number of computers at home is increasing. From one desktop family PC to multiple personal laptops, plus game consoles, DLNA media extenders, and other home networked devices to come (IP cameras, home robots…)

In that environment, a shared storage attached to the home network is a must so that heavy media files do not have to be stored in each laptop at home. The media files in a central location are accessed through the network by any Media Player: laptops, Xbox 360 or PS3, or other Media Extenders.

Folowing those trends, Microsoft has created Microsoft Home Server. HP SmartMedia Home Server is based on Microsoft software.

As we all get more conscious about energy saving, specially for an always-on device, and as a home server can be simplified as pure shared storage, NAS devices are positioning as a wise low cost solution.

Taiwanese QNAP has designed a low-cost NAS targeted for homes. Apart from shared storage with user replaceable drives, QNAP NAS also features:
– a DLNA built-in media server, so that media extenders can access all shared media
– a Bittorrrent client, manageable through a web interface
– 14W power comsuption in operation (6.6W in sleep mode). Fan-less noise-free design.

Linksys and D-link have a similar products, including the built-in media server, but without the Bittorrent client.

Apple Time Capsule is the latest addition. While bundling a network drive with a 802.11n router is a wise idea ( both are always-on devices), it is meant to only backup the Macbooks at home. No media server, no Bittorrent but stylishly packaged and built to easily integrate with Apple family.

HP SmartMedia Time Capsule  QNAP TS-109 Linksys NAS200
 
2 x 500GB
 
1 x 1TB
 
HD not included
 
2-bays HD not included
 
$751.47
with MS Home Server
 
$499.99
 
$290.79
(+$105 / 500GB HD)
(+$311 / 1TB HD)
 
$129.99
(+$105 / 500GB HD)
Pros:
Up to 4 HD
Manage users rights
Manage Software
 Pros:
802.11n router
Stylish design
 Pros:
Low power consumption
Noise-free operation
Media server, web,
DDNS and BitTorrent
 Pros:
Media server PnP
Low cost
 Cons:
Power comsuption
No Wifi
High cost
 Cons:
No media server
Only back-ups
 Cons:
Only 1 HD
Expensive in US
Cheaper in Asia
 Cons:
No Gigabit port
Slow back-ups