There is no indication of price or availability, so this "announcement" is almost comically vague, but it is interesting nonetheless. For the uninitiated, MHL is a standard that aims to simplify getting content from mobile devices (smartphones and tablets) while keeping the devices charged. The MHL folks were smart enough not to come up with their own unique connector/cable; instead it uses the HDMI or microHDMI connectors, and includes HDMI backwards compatibility. It looks like Onkyo's reciever will pop up windows showing you what content is available on the device, allowing you to easily push that content on to the TV. That doesn't seem like an earth-shattering innovation, but given the dearth of MHL-compliant televisions on the market - let alone installed in homes - it could be useful.
Of course, you'll need an MHL-capable phone as well. Here the news is good; there are only a handful of phones with MHL, but one of them is extremely popular, Samsung's Galaxy SII, and most of HTC's latest phones support it as well, including the EVO 3D at Sprint, Vivid at AT&T, Rezound at Verizon Wireless, and the Sensation at T-Mobile.
My Last Minute, Non-Obvious Holiday Gift Guide is now up over at Slashgear.com.
It certainly took them long enough, but Roku is finally graduating from online-only sales to retail. It wasn't doing too badly in the old business model - Roku's status as the least expensive and easiest streaming media box allowed it to rack up over a million units sold. Still, Roku always seemed something like a secret that only technically savvy people knew about - and that is not the target demographic for a product designed for simplicity. No, the ideal retail channel ought to be something like Target. Or Best Buy:
Roku XD player is available for purchase at Best Buy stores nationwide and at BestBuy.com. With up to 1080p HD streaming support, integrated 802.11n WiFi and Instant Replay the Roku XD offers unlimited entertainment choices and incredible value to customers. The Roku XD has a list price of $79.99 and is available at Best Buy stores and at BestBuy.com for purchase today. Roku players can also be found at other leading retail stores including BJ’s Wholesale Club, Fry’s Electronics and RadioShack.
Best Buy, Fry's, and the Shack. Well, the good news is that those stores are where a shopper goes if they want an inexpensive box to stream Netflix (or MLB or NBA or any of Roku's other content options). The bad news is that it won't reach consumers who don't know that they want an inexpensive box to stream Netflix (or MLB or NBA or any of Roku's other content options). Hopefully a successful run at Best Buy will get buyers at Target and Walmart interested, because their customers are who Roku should be chasing.
My Last Minute, Non-Obvious Holiday Gift Guide 2010 has been posted over at Slashgear.com and includes a Home Entertainment section.
First a bit of background: Kaleidescape is a high end media server vendor. They make boxes you have a custom installer put in one spot, which connect over a wired network to smaller boxes your installer connects to each TV and projector in your home. You - or your installer - copies all your DVDs onto the big box, and then you can watch all your movies anywhere in your home. Basically, it's Sonos for movies for rich people. How rich? Kaleidescape was actually the reason I instituted a policy not to review anything I could not reasonably afford. Years ago Kaleidescape offered me a full setup to review; I refused because I didn't want to take out an insurance policy on a loaner, and I didn't want to take out a second mortgage on the chance that I couldn't bear to return it. A full Kaleidescape system in those days easily topped $50,000. Prices have come way down, but most systems will still end up in the $20,000 range with installation.
I had good reason to fear wanting to keep a system. I have used Kaleidescape at trade shows and have been consistently impressed. It is fully babysitter proof and requires no technical knowledge to use whatsoever. As all the movies are ripped to the system's hard drive(s), movies start instantly. However, its one downfall is that until now it only supported DVDs, not Blu-ray discs. As many installations include equally expensive HD projectors, this is a real problem.
Kaleidescape's first stab at the problem was adding Blu-ray support to the M500 player - one of the small boxes you'd have near your TV. That certainly enables you to play a Blu-ray disc (both at that TV or anywhere else in the house), but it still requires physically handling the disc every time you want to watch a movie and it is not all that much better than a regular Blu-ray player from Sony or Samsung. The whole point of Kaleidescape is access to any movie you own instantly thoughout the house.
Kaleidescape is now selling a partial solution to the problem: you can rip Blu-ray discs to the hard drive in the server, and it will play off the server (which means you can include it compilation video playlists). However, to appease the copyright gods, Kaleidescape still has to physically verify that you own the Blu-ray disc before playing any of its sweet 1080p content. To do so, you'll need a media vault ($1500), the ugly box pictured on the right, which can hold up to 100 Blu-ray discs. You can add as many of these as you like, but each needs to be connected to an M-class player (like the M500). In short, Kaleidescape now allows Blu-rays to be treated just like DVDs, only there is a lot more complexity and kludginess involved. It's better than nothing, but it has to seriously pain Kaleidescape's management and engineering staff who have made simplicity and elegance a core part of the product's value proposition.
As if the iPhone/iPod touch/iPad family wasn't already encroaching on distributed audio and home automation control systems, Onkyo announced that its future A/V receivers will come with free iOS remote control apps. This is a good idea for Onkyo on several levels: it allows Onkyo to tap into Apple's marketing momentum, and gives it the ability to market a rich touchscreen remote control without having to add anything to the bill of materials for the receiver.
Of course, using a phone as a remote can be problematic - what happens when someone wants to use the system and you're on the phone or out of the house? Dedicating an iPod touch to remote control duty - especially if you invest in a charging dock so it stays charged and doesn't wander off - solves this problem, and gives retailers who carry both Onkyo and Apple products a nice add-on sale at time of purchase. Consumers may balk at the added price, but the truth is that Apple's component prices are so much lower than specialty A/V vendors that it would probably be cheaper for Onkyo to buy an iPod touch and include it in the box rather than try to build an equivalent product for use as a remote control.
Not sure where I was when this crossed the wire back in April, but I was saddened - but not surprised - to learn that D&M Holdings shut down both Snell and Escient.
Snell was a high end speaker brand without enough brand recognition. Selling $30,000 speakers in a recession is extremely hard. Selling $30,000 speakers from a brand that only involved enthusiasts have heard of is basically impossible, no matter how terrific they measure and sound (Snell was famous for rigorously achieving ridiculously flat frequency measurements).
I suspect that the recession did in Escient, which made well regarded music servers, as well. Sure, some of Escient's functionality made its way into Windows and iTunes over the years, but the general collapse of the custom installation business was the bigger culprit. That and the rise of Sonos, which is dead simple for regular consumers to install, and considerably less expensive than any custom solution.
Just a quick note today: Sonos just started shipping a new software update that adds some new Internet radio options, crossfading between songs, some new language support, new alarm settings, and the ability to use two S5's as a stereo pair. None of the features is critical on its own (though the S5 stereo feature is quite cool; when everything is digital, you can do all sorts of neat things) but Sonos already built the best multi-room component system. I sent back my Sonos review system so I can't test this personally. Sigh.
With the Sonos gone, we've been using Logitech's Squeezebox Boom (OK; needs a better remote, the UI is just "OK," and the Sonos is better for multi-room use). The Squeezebox Touch just showed up, and I'll put that to the test once I get some speakers for it.
A couple of weeks ago I asked how early adopter (and device analysts) with multiplying digital components could possibly connect them all.
I was talking with Microsoft about the XBOX 360 earlier this week, and one of the things they said will drive consumers to their console vs. the competition is the integration of multiple features into Live, such as Netflix streaming, gaming, and other content. At Current Analysis our Digital Home service covers game consoles from the perspective of connected services; we treat a PS3, XBOX, or Wii like the fancy set top boxes (that not coincidentally also play games) that they have become. However, I thought we were a bit ahead of the curve - most consumers haven't fully embraced this vision yet. But when FedEx dropped off yet another box here this afternoon, I started thinking: how on Earth am I going to connect this? Is Microsoft right - will consumers buy a game console to access digital services simply because they're out of HDMI inputs on their TV?
Now I know that my situation is not something everyone faces, but how many devices can a consumer reasonably connect to a TV or even a sophisticated A/V receiver? I'm not sure there are enough inputs any more - even on flagship receivers - to connect all the possible devices an early adopter/TV nut might want to. (Some of these offer redundant functionality, but even then there are typically unique functions that could justify their purchase.) Here's a sample list:
I'm trying to integrate about eight or nine of those, and I'm not sure that there is a receiver on the planet that can handle more than about half that list.
I'm in charge of Consumer Devices at Current Analysis, which is actually composed of two separate groups: Mobile Devices and Digital Home. I've been in charge of the devices portion of our Digital Home service since the beginning of this year, and while I intend to continue posting here about home theater, I thought I'd plug noteworthy Digital Home reports on this blog as well. This year's E3 (the electronic gaming show) crossed over both of my coverage areas. I stayed home this year - I'm on the road a lot as it is - but Bruce McGregor, our Senior Analyst, Digital Home was there live. This isn't a new console year, but there were multiple announcements around new services, and Bruce wrote up announcements from Microsoft and Sony, while I covered the PSPgo.
(The report links require paid access to Current Analysis' syndicated research service; journalists who need free access should contact me and we'll get an account set up for you.)
|E3 2009: Sony PSPgo Doesn't go Far Enough|
|E3 2009: Sony Offers More Movie and TV Show Downloads for Its PS3 and PSP Devices|
|E3 2009: Microsoft Shows Off Several Xbox 360 Upgrades to Embolden Its Place in the Living Room|
Another one from the email bag today:
I've been searching for a great sounding speaker system for computer use (Pc & MacBook Pro in the near future). I mainly want it for music, it will also be used for movies & games since I have a 40" connected to my pc. I've heard a bunch of systems, but nothing stands out of the crowd (I like to hear all sounds in a track as recorded). I ended up deciding on the (Axiom Audio Audiobytes and EPZero Subwoofer) till I read your review of them. What is your choice since I do listen to Trance & Hip Hop and do a little mixing? I noticed you like the Klipsch 2.1. Is that your favorite choice? I don't mind spending around $500 if the system is well worth it.
My preferred PC speakers are the Klipsch ProMedia 5.1, which Klipsch discontinued way back in 2003. I have tested several systems since then, including the Axiom AudiBytes and Logitech’s Z5500 5.1 THX system, and I still prefer the old Klipsch. The Klipsch ProMedia 2.1 system looks similar to the 5.1 in photos, but it is not even close in terms of specifications. The speakers have different frequency response ranges, different maximum output levels, and different materials. The 2.1 subwoofer is much smaller and has a completely different configuration. As soon as I find a speaker system that beats the Klipsch I’ll write about them – and probably ask to buy the review samples – but thus far I haven’t.
I was talking to my wife this evening, telling her about the new SlingCatcher (her term for these conversations is "lectures"), and she pointed out that my terminology, "wicked cool," is really, really old. Sad thing, I'm really really old. I have no idea what current slang for that would be. Tight? Sweet? Five by five? (That last one was on Buffy. Which has been off the air for years now, sadly.) Any help appreciated.
Oh, and the SlingCatcher is now shipping. The "wicked cool" feature I was trying to describe to my wife - before she so rudely interrupted the lecture - is the ability to take anything on your laptop and send it to your TV. Anything. You use something that works like a cropping tool to select whatever you want to see on the big screen - YouTube video, Hulu TV shows, Word documents, embedded video of a dubious nature, a Facebook page, whatever, and SlingCatcher broadcasts just that portion of the screen - nicely scaled - to your TV. That's not all the SlingCatcher can do; you can also use a SlingCatcher as a "receiver" for a SlingBox elsewhere in the house, or for the more traditional PC-to-TV media uses, like playing music or viewing photos from a PC. But the screen broadcast feature is wicked cool.
I should have a review unit in shortly; I have a SlingBox HD in for review as well.
Logitech sent over Z-5 Omnidirectional notebook speakers. They're not going to put my Klipsch THX speakers of business (not by a long shot), but you need to remember that they're powered entirely via USB and don't take up too much desk space. Simplicity is clearly the goal here; the last USB-powered speakers I looked at, Altec Lansing's XT1's were designed with portability in mind. Compared to the XT1's, Logitech's Z-5's play extremely loud and sound extraordinary. They should make a great holiday gift for the notebook user who listens to music through fuzzy notebook speakers.
Logitech also sent over triple.fi 10 pro's from their recent Ultimate Ears acquisition, and I had them on hand at the recent Apple "Let's Rock" event, where I pitted them up against Apple's upcoming $79 in-ear headphones.
You get what you pay for - on both ends of the price spectrum. For $79, the Apple headphones sounded great - easily competitive with the low end of Shure and etymotic's range, and they blow away Bose's in-ear efforts (I can't comment on UE's entry level headphones, as I haven't listened to them). But they couldn't hold a candle - on bass or midrange - with the $399 UE's triple.fi 10 pro's. I was also annoyed that the Apple headphones are not fully compatible with the iPhone, just the iPod touch and new nano. (That new nano needs to be felt to be believed - it is vanishingly thin and the colors are gorgeous. Apple did a really nice job with this one.)
I'm really enjoying the triple.fi headphones, and finally had a chance to do some quick listening tests vs. one of their main competitors: Shure's $499 SE530. For natural, neutral sound quality, the SE530's are incredible, as well they should be at that price. The UE triple.fi 10 pro is a bit less neutral and seems to amp up the body of bass and warmth of the lower midrange - which is often lacking on headphones. Both are equally revealing, but I would describe the sound of the UE's as more "fun. Which is better? It's a matter of taste. While I suspect the Shure's are more accurate, listening to rock and pop with the UE's is more involving.
But my favorite headphones for the iPhone (and any phone with a 3.5mm jack, which includes most new RIM BlackBerries, Nokia's XpressMusic line, and select LG and Samsung phones) are still Shure's SE530's with the Shure iPhone microphone adapter, pictured below. They sound great with the compressed music you have on an iPhone, have the most comfortable shaped foam earplugs in the industry, and the modular design allows you to swap out various cord lengths or accessories.
CEDIA and IFA news is filling up my inbox, but one press release jumped out at me. I've seen similar features from other manufacturers (Onkyo immediately comes to mind), but the emphasis on digital media features in a new receiver from Yamaha was a big enough shift for me to write about it. Here's the headline:
NEW YAMAHA RX-Z7 7.1 CHANNEL HOME THEATER RECEIVER EXPANDS ON YAMAHA’S HIGHLY ACCLAIMED Z-SERIES, OFFERING SOPHISTICATED HOME ENTERTAINMENT AND BEST-IN-CLASS HD PERFORMANCE
Well that sounds like any other high end super receiver. But wait, here's the subhead:
Following the Lead of the Company’s Flagship RX-Z11; The RX-Z7 Integrates iPod, Bluetooth, HDRadio, Satellite and Internet Radio, and Rhapsody Playback with Pure HD Sound and Picture in a Versatile Multi-Zone Digital Media Hub
If this makes it seem like Yamaha is not trying to differentiate the receiver with amplifier channels or surround sound decoding -- the traditional reasons to buy a receiver -- you'd be right. Here's the third paragraph of the release:
Offering DLNA support and compatibility with Windows Vista, the RX-Z7 can stream music files (WAV, Mp3, WMA, AAC) stored on locally networked PCs and other devices, as well as Internet radio streams (Mp3, WMA). In addition to supporting SIRIUS Internet Radio*, the unit offers full compatibility with Rhapsody, giving users unrestricted, on-demand access to the subscription music service’s enormous selection of content spanning virtually every genre, style and taste. The RX-Z7 also integrates with Yamaha’s MusicCAST system, providing access to as many as 40,000 songs that can be stored on that system. The AV receiver can display album artwork through its GUI to take user engagement to a new level.
That sounds like a PC media extender, not a receiver. The fifth paragraph really takes it above and beyond:
The RX-Z7 is the ultimate AV receiver for iPod users. It easily connects to Apple iPods via the optional iPod docking station (Yamaha YDS-11; MSRP $99.95). Once docked, the iPod can be operated via the receiver’s remote controls. A one cable connection allows users to view the iPod’s operating status (song title, artist, album with cover art), as well as video and pictures on a television monitor. Docked iPods charge automatically, so they’re always ready for a road trip. Giving users even more ways to access their music, the RX-Z7 boasts two USB ports that adhere to the Media Transfer Protocol (MTP) for playback of Mp3, WMA, WAV and AAC audio files from a portable player or USB drive.
For those who keep music stored on their phones or other Bluetooth-enabled devices, the RX-Z7 is compatible with Yamaha’s optional YBA-10 Bluetooth Wireless Audio Receiver (SRP $129.95), which enables wirelessly streaming audio to the AV receiver.
... The RX-Z7 also supports iTunes tagging, so when users hear a favorite song on HD Radio, they can instantly bookmark it to their iTunes account.
XM Radio and HD Radio support are also on board, as are multiple channels of amplification, video scaling, HDMI switching, and multi-room support. Still, the differentiating features are all about managing PC-derived digital media.
High end receivers have always been about offering lots of features and flexibility. But when you emphasize streaming media, Vista support, Bluetooth, and extensive iPod integration, it sure sounds like a PC to me. Why not just put an HDMI switch and amplification unit in a PC? All the digital media management is already on there as is video scaling and surround sound decoding. Yes, the inside of a PC is an electrically noisy place, and putting amps inside would require a different power supply. But these are design issues that can be (and already have been) overcome in other contexts.
Sonos announced several upgrades today to its whole-house audio system (my review of the original system is here).
The receiver modules have shrunk in size, have been upgraded with an upgraded version of Sonos' proprietary wireless mesh networking technology, and the one with an internal amplifier (the ZonePlayer 120) has gotten more power. The software has been upgraded, and it now supports ridiculously large music collections (65,000 songs), OS X Leopard, and NAS devices (networked hard drives, which means you can listen to your own songs without turning on your PC).
What hasn't changed:
A complete Sonos system is incredibly cost effective when compared to custom installed wired multi-room alternatives. But it is still pricey overkill for filling just one or two rooms with sound; two iPods and two iPod docks runs less than half the cost of a Sonos. The direct competition is starting to catch up; Logitech's Squeezebox Duet (pictured here on the right) undercuts Sonos on price and has a similar scroll wheel controller (the Duet costs $399 and includes a receiver; the equivalent Sonos Controller + ZP90 combo costs $748). One major difference is in ease of setup - Sonos wins hands down, in part because Sonos doesn't require a PC or a wireless network. I have tested Logitech's predecessor, the Squeezebox, and found its basic remote and user interface nearly unusable; I plan to test the Duet and future products in Logitech's line shortly.
Axiom has been trying to get me to review a set of speakers from their home theater surround lineup, but I asked to start with something smaller, so they suggested their Audiobytes PC speaker system. I’ve been using what counts as “high end” speaker systems in the PC world on my media center PC for nearly a decade. My primary PC speaker system is a Klipsch THX Pro Media 5.1, which I have pitted against a 5.1 THX setup from Logitech, 2.1 systems from Altec Lansing, and others over the years. Axiom’s Audiobyte system consists of up to four pieces: modest sized left and right speakers and an enormous desktop amplifier/volume control that I struggled to find room for on my desk ($349 for all three); and a subwoofer roughly the same size as a full sized PC desktop case that will almost certainly be placed right next to it ($179). The speakers can be ordered in some fairly exotic enclosure materials (from various types of wood to bold designer colors), which is fairly common in high end audio and home theater, but quite unusual for PC speakers. For review purposes I asked for a set in basic black (pictured to the left; the subwoofer is pictured separately, below).
The system arrived in two large, heavy boxes (large enough that visitors to my office could not believe that they contained a PC speaker system). All the cables required to hook up the system are included. The cables don’t offer the most flexibility in placement, but since most users will just be flanking their computer monitor with the speakers, super-long cables aren’t required. There are small rubber “feet” you can add to the speakers, but no stands. This is a shame, because the speakers will obviously be used on a desk, and in most situations, that will be below ear level; angled stands would be a big help.
The amplifier unit serves all the speakers; the subwoofer does not have its own power supply and amplifier. The amp glows blue around the volume control and never got more than warm after hours of continuous use. The large amp does seem to have an effect on the system’s capabilities, imbuing the Audiobytes with tremendous dynamic range – they can play ridiculously loud without distortion. For example, John Williams’ “Hedwig’s Theme” from Harry Potter goes from quiet to over-the-top brassy; the quiet sections were clear and full, and then – boom, it’s loud! – but without any sibilance on the horns. Some of this power is wasted on a near-field product like a PC system where you have a defined listening position – most listeners will be no more than three feet or so from the speakers at any time. Still, it’s nice to have gobs of power on reserve, even if there’s no way anyone will ever push the amplifier beyond mid-point before going deaf.
The main speakers and amplifier combination is more neutral and analytical than warm. Pianos were rendered realistically, which is quite hard to do and rarely achieved on PC systems. Female vocals were also good, but not great, mostly because the sound is overly localized to the little speaker. Similarly, drum kits were loud and crisp but were still sounded like they emanated from a little box three feet away rather than from a real drum set farther back. In short, they sound better than most PC speakers, but you can’t expect audiophile nirvana for $350.
Still, the system’s clarity is excellent. The mark of a good PC or iPod speaker system – you can easily tell which songs have been recorded at higher bit levels – is achieved here. Better sources sound better. I also found that the added fidelity and ability to raise endlessly raise the volume is useful beyond music when used with a PC – a webcast with poor audio quality was much clearer and easier to follow.
However, despite the big subwoofer, at anything less than ear-bleeding levels, the EPZero generated very little bass. The sub has three setting: “flat,” “half,” and “full.” It badly needs something beyond “full,” say, a “Spinal Tap” setting that takes it to 11. On Rihanna’s “Don’t Stop the Music” her vocals were crystal clear and the bass had wonderful tone – there just wasn’t that much of it. I wasn’t sure what was going on here, so I tried the “full” setting and played an even more bass-heavy dance track, “SOS.” On the Klipsch system played at the same volume level, the room shakes. On the Axiom, the bass is extremely tight – ‘bob your head’ tight, not ‘shake your rear’ tight. It worked well enough for classical and indie rock (Jonathan Coulton never sounded better), but the Axiom system isn’t the best system to listen to house, electronic, or hip hop unless you prefer listening at levels loud enough to damage your hearing.
The lack of bass at reasonable volumes really bothers me, and the high price doesn’t help matter, so I had fully expected to end my review on a negative note. But the longer I listened to music on the Audiobytes, the more I enjoyed them. The main speakers have a very neutral, open, non-fatiguing sound. They sound good. Would I spend $350 for them? Probably not. But I’m quite reluctant to let Axiom know that I’ve completed the review and ask for a shipping account number to use to return them.
Well, I'm back from Las Vegas, but my body is still on the wrong time zone. There were three main stories at this year's CES:
Other CES trends:
Due to a hyper travel schedule I will not be in SFO for MacWorld next week, however I will be covering announcements made at the show from afar. Should be interesting!
I've been trying to catch up with my reading - nearly a year's worth of home theater magazines have piled up. One thing I've noticed is an increased emphasis on flat panel TVs - no surprise there, as that category accounts for an enormous amount of sales activity. What I found odd was the sheer amount of coverage mobile devices now get in these publications. Sure, I expect convergence in Sound & Vision, which has steadily moved in that direction for years. But Home Theater Magazine? Aside from the odd TV with an SD card slot, what do digital cameras have to do with home theater? Someone has to explain to me why the iPhone gets flagged on the cover of The Perfect Vision, which used to be a magazine targeting videophiles.
I know the writers of many of the articles - I see them at all the same trade shows and press conferences, and their content isn't bad, it just seems badly out of place. Perhaps I'm a strange person to raise the question; after all, I left a thriving home theater research service at JupiterResearch several years ago to start up a Mobile Devices practice at Current Analysis. I know that the iPod has been a major challenge for traditional A/V vendors (you could probably make a strong case that Apple and iPod dock vendors have stolen sales that once went to receivers, minisystems, and boom boxes) but when did the iPhone kill interest in speaker systems?
My former colleague Joe Wilcox wrote a fairly damning column on Microsoft Vista yesterday, and I generally agree with his overall analysis. I have also written here in the past that I simply could not get Vista running reliably as a media center upgrade. And yet, somewhat surprisingly, my Vista box is now running well: no crashes, no problems connecting to peripherals, no problems. Four things have contributed to the updated (and happier) state of affairs:
So I spent another $200 or so to improve the basic hardware, Microsoft has patched things up, and it's working. To celebrate, I invested another $200 in a 22" widescreen monitor - more on that in my next post.
Logitech introduced a new "mouse" yesterday, and I put "mouse" in quotation marks because it's an interesting product that blends a PC mouse with a gyroscopic sensor (think Nintendo Wii's controller and you have the right idea) and software that can be used as a remote control for watching media content on a computer.
There have been products like this in the past, notably from Gyration (a company that got bought by Thomson in 2004). A bunch of years back when I was heading home theater research at JupiterResearch I wrote a report where I recommended their Media Center accessory line for inclusion with HTPC's which were just starting to ship. I'm still a big fan of Gyration's Gyrotransport, an ingenious product for the presentation market which combines a gyroscopic mouse, USB transmitter, and Flash storage (for your PPT deck) all in one compact package. However, the market for dedicated HTPCs has proven to be relatively small even as an overwhelming majority of consumers use their PCs for all sorts of media consumption. Logitech addresses the reality that computers are rarely used from 10 feet away on a couch, but that users do often switch between direct manipulation (the 2' experience) and a "lean-back" experience where they may not be right at the PC. Maybe they are on a couch, or just pushed back their chair a bit. The MX Air functions as a normal laser mouse when placed on a flat surface, and switches to air mouse mode when you pick it up.
Like Gyration's Media Center remote, Logitech's MX Air has all sorts of neat air gestures you can make to control volume, skip music tracks or jump to the next movie scene. This is cool and demos well, though hard buttons are at least as efficient. I got a chance to use the MX Air last month, and what I found most impressive is how easy and smooth in-air control is; Gyration uses a different technology, and Logitech's cursor control is easier to use. It also feels nice in the hand and is easy to control as a regular mouse on a desk; lefties may actually prefer it to most ergonomic mice which are clearly designed for right handed users.
What's not so impressive is the price: $149 for what is unquestionably a cool gadget, but one that is not exactly necessary. (Personally, if I was shopping for a premium mouse, I'd spend the money on Logitech's amazing $99 MX Revolution. That has no real added attraction for media viewing, but the scroll wheel shifts from free spin to ratched spin depending on which application you have open, which greatly improves productivity.)
Microsoft sent over a copy of Vista Ultimate and I upgraded my Media Center test box to put it through its paces. I have had mixed results.
First, the positive. Vista is building on XP Media Center, which was already a good media platform. XP Media Center 2005 Edition crossed over the threshold of "good enough" to serve as a PVR instead of a TiVo or ReplayTV. I found it quite stable, though it still needs an antivirus subscription, and works best as a DVR when used almost exclusively for TV rather than combination work/TV/test box with all the software detrius left by constant loading/unloading of drivers and programs. Vista Home Premium or Ultimate is even more refined, with better graphics, transitions, and transparencies throughout. The main user interface screen for Media Center now forms a cross (up/down to switch media, left/right to move through options); this makes the various functions more accessible at the cost of some simplicity.
The OS as a whole has improved in many small but meaningful ways - networking and file management have gotten particularly useful overhauls. Overall, Vista looks and feels a lot more like a Mac, only without as much of a learning curve for people used to Windows XP*.
I had absolutely no problems with the upgrade process itself. Vista Upgrade Advisor said everything should work just fine other than a Dymo label printer which needs updated drivers. I can live without that for a while, so we were all set. I chose to wipe out all existing data and start fresh - I didn't want any old software causing problems down the road. Still, Windows insisted on saving all the old files, moving them to a separate folder for safekeeping (figuring out how to delete them en masse - they were seriously clogging up the hard drive - was no picnic).
Now, the bad news. As an upgrade, on my machine at least, it's quite buggy.
The first thing I noticed is that certain applications within Vista seem to remap the speakers. Quicken and some - not all - downloaded videos play the center channel sound through the left rear speaker. This is bizarre. Other applications play things just fine: Media Center, no problem. iTunes, no problem. Rhapsody, no problem. I couldn't find anything wrong with the driver or the sound in Control Panel, and the applications that most need sound seemed to work, so I chalked it up to version 1.0 gremlins. Hopefully a future driver update will fix things down the road.
And then the real trouble started. The system would mysteriously, and consistently, crash. At first I thought it might have something to do with Rhapsody after all, as it was playing in the background during most crashes. Eventually I discovered what I suspect is the real problem: the Ribbons screen saver. About 20 minutes in, it takes down the whole system, even if its the only thing running on the PC. Well, it's probably not the screensaver's fault, but my video card. Running the diagnostics program within Vista tells me everything's fine, but 20 minutes of that screen saver and crash. Every time. In its automated search for a solution to the problem, Windows has since told me that some part of my video card driver is incompatible with Vista, and that I should check for updates. I checked. Nothing new. However, with the screensaver off, the system has been completely stable. I suspect - hope! - that updated drivers for the video card will be released that solve the problem, not just avoid it.
Unfortunately, with the screen saver off, the system is stable long enough to go into sleep mode. That's perfectly normal and saves power - and money - while hurting the environment a bit less. The problem is when it wakes up from sleep mode, most of the time my Logitech DiNovo keyboard and mouse just don't work. Needless to say, this makes the whole system useless - you need a keyboard to type in a mandatory password to unlock Vista before you can run the Logitech software to reconnect things. At first, I thought that this might be a Bluetooth incompatibility - Logitech uses different Bluetooth drivers for Vista than it did on XP. But I checked, I'm using the correct drivers. No, it seems that this one is a known bug (KB 929577 "This problem may occur on a system that supports selective suspend if the computer goes to sleep shortly after the Bluetooth device's power is cycled.") with a patch available. Great, they know about it, they have a fix available, I should be good to go. No such luck. The fix is not actually available for download yet. You can ask Microsoft to send it to you, but when I tried that using the online chat system, it got as far as telling me that there would be no charge to answer the question, and then... "An unknown application error occurred. Please try again in a few minutes." A few minutes, a few hours ...has made no difference, I can't even ask the question. Yes, I could try emailing or calling support on the phone (or calling Microsoft PR), but for now, I give up. I'll email later, and in the meantime I've changed the power settings so that the computer never enters sleep mode.
These are just my experiences on my specific hardware. Generalizing from my experience is not necessarily fair to Microsoft, and I would not be concerned about buying a new PC with Vista preloaded (in fact, I plan to do that soon). Having said that, based on my experience, I cannot recommend upgrading an existing machine from XP to Vista at this time.
*Oh, I know I'm going to get flamed for this, so let me explain: I hadn't used a Mac in about four years when Apple sent over a MacBook Pro running OS X a few months ago. No question about it, OS X is a wonderful OS, and Microsoft clearly spent a lot of time studying it when putting together Vista. But the Mac has different ways of doing things, different places where downloaded files are stored, and different user interface conventions. For example, when closing an application in Windows, it closes when you click on the "X." That same action in OS X seems to minimize it. Right click on something in XP or Vista, and you get a context-sensitive list of options. There's a way of doing that on the Mac, too, just no second mouse button for it. Some of these are such seriously ingrained habits that it took me a while to figure out why I was confused. Anyone who wants to migrate from XP to OS X rather than Vista isn't going to get an argument from me - please, Apple fanatics, I love you! I do! - but I would recommend that switchers buy a book or have a Mac user walk you through some of the basics.
Alan Graham proposes that Apple's Apple TV is aiming at the heart of the cable TV business model:
Is Apple Out to Kill Tivo? by ZDNet's Alan Graham -- Yeah, I'm calling it. I think Apple (and others) are about to send Cable TV and Tivo a clear message…your time is almost up. The Web 2.0 world is about to kick the door in and escort the old methodology to pasture. And I think it is going to happen pretty quickly. Don't let the [...]
It's well argued, and there's no question that Apple TV is a TiVo competitor, but he's wrong on the cable front, so his numbers just don't add up. Alan's most compelling argument is that cable TV + TiVo is considerably more expensive than simply buying the shows you're interested in off of iTunes. However, this business model requires consumers to give up their cable TV, and that simply isn't happening en masse. For starters, cable TV allows you to discover the shows worth buying in the first place. Cable TV allows you to watch live events, like sports, or the Academy Awards, SNL, moon landings, war/terrorism coverage, and murderers driving very slowly. There are plenty of other options for getting news, but sports events have deliberately limited distribution, and generally must be consumed live (watching a game 24 hours later is like reading yesterday's newspaper. For some it is 'reference material,' for others, it's the video equivalent of what you wrap fish with).
There are other advantages to having access to live (or only slightly time-shifted) content. Speaking as someone who watches a lot of TV via Netflix, the gap between watching something live on cable and watching it a day/month/year later kills the sense of community and continuity - you're completely out of touch at the water cooler. I admit that being out of touch is not as big a deal as it used to be, given the fractured TV landscape (TiVo, TV-on-DVD, TV-online, TV-on-iTunes) and work environment (I work out of a home office where there is no "water cooler," unless you count Instant Messaging). But at least with TiVo -- ReplayTV and XP Media Center in my house -- you have the option of watching live. If you turn off cable, you're at the mercy of whatever content Apple gets and when they get it.
Apple TV will be additive for most people, purchased in addition to cable. Yes, it could replace a TiVo or Netflix subscription (though both have uses that the iTV does not currently address). And perhaps it could replace extended cable packages (in my own household we downgraded to basic cable several years ago and filled in our entertainment gap with TV-on-DVD via Netflix). But to make Alan's numbers work, you need to drop cable entirely... and that's just not going to happen.
Yes, it's been a long time since the last post here at Home Theater View, but that's not because I haven't been writing. My Last Minute Non-Obvious Holiday Gift Guide has just been posted over at LIVEDigitally.
As I write this, there is only one day left to Chanukah and a couple of shopping days before Christmas. I figure there’s no need for a last minute gift list with obvious entries. Let’s face it, if you didn’t already get an HDTV or MP3 player for your home theater and gadget-loving giftees, you don’t need me to tell you that you could get them a plasma or an iPod. So here is the:
Sonos has built a flash version of its music controller for online demos. It's neat, and was probably worth the investment it took to build because the UI (depicted below) is a key part of the Sonos value proposition.
However, one of the more interesting pieces of feedback I received from my Sonos review was from people who wanted to know why Sonos was worth a price premium over simply sticking an iPod and a speaker dock in each room.
There are good answers to that question, but the experience is different, and that doesn't come across in an answer - or a demo of the UI. The controller isn't the experience. Having easily controlled music throughout your home is the experience, and, that may take an actual physical demonstration at someone's home to generate the a-ha! moment Sonos needs.
JupiterKagan's Michael Gartenberg has a great post about the three elements needed to successfully launch a new consumer media format. He concludes that neither HD-DVD or Blu-Ray measures up.
Full disclosure: I created the diagram that Michael uses to illustrate his point back when I was an analyst at what was then called JupiterResearch and he was my Research Director; it was for a report on next generation audio formats.
When assessing the relative strength of HD-DVD vs. Blu-Ray for high definition disc format war handicapping, I have always been quick to point out that DVD is the likely successor to DVD, as it is "good enough" for most consumers and addresses a larger installed base of non-HDTVs in addition to HDTV sets with decent anamorphic ("enhanced for widescreen TV") performance. But the other thing I have noted time and time again is that Sony's Playstation 3 (PS3) was a potential trojan horse, bringing Blu-Ray playback to the masses. At E3 today, Sony announced the pricing and availability for the PS3, and it's... well, it's late and it's exhorbitant. In the U.S., the PS3 will start shipping November 17 for at least $500. $600 buys the version with HDMI, which you'll need to get all that Blu-Ray goodness over to your HDTV. Will Sony sell more $500 and $600 PS3's than Toshiba sells of its $500 HD-DVD deck? Probably, but this is hardly a price point that will resonate beyond hard core gamers, and the Blu-Ray capabilities are not a "freebie" when you have to pay $600 for it.
The PS3 pricing will come down over time, and so will pricing on standalone HD-DVD and Blu-Ray decks. And the PS3 may yet be the tipping point that puts Blu-Ray over the edge. But even if that does end up being the case, this trojan horse is going to take an awfully long time to mosey over the finish line. In the meantime, it's looking like both formats will have a long, tough fight ahead of them, and may never amount to much more than the laserdisc of this era, to be replaced by on-demand downloads, holographic media, better codecs for red-laser media(DVD-something) or ...something else.
I'll admit it up front - one of the key reasons I run Home Theater View is to get early looks at products like the Sonos system. I have been following Sonos since well before it launched. The concept is simple: Sonos takes the music you're already storing and managing on your PC and streams it to multiple locations around your house. The controller looks like an iPod, and, like an iPod, nearly anyone can use it. Each Sonos unit becomes part of a separate wireless mesh network - no WiFi needed, and setup consists of pushing a couple of buttons and letting Sonos do all the work. Sonos can play different music in each room, synchronize music to multiple rooms, or synchronize music to all rooms ("party" mode). Sonos can also accept music from any room and stream that back to any or all of the other units.
Sonos launched with a 2 room $1199 bundle: Sonos supplied a player/amplifier (ZP100) for each room and a controller (CR100), but expected consumers to BYOS (Bring Your Own Speakers). Sonos quickly heard that the BYOS strategy was DOA for a large segement of their target market, and rolled out Sonos-branded speakers for $179, or as part of a $1499 package for two amps, two pair of speakers, and a controller. The most recent update to the system is the ZP80 (pictured at right), which asks consumers to BYOA (Bring Your Own Amplifiers), which makes sense for economically integrating home theater systems and the like, which already have their own amps.
My test setup included a ZP80 along with a pair of ZP100's (pictured at left), a C100, and a pair Sonos Speakers. I have also hooked up a pair of Carver HT5.1 bookshelf speakers to one ZP100 and an Altec Lansing self-powered satellite-subwoofer PC speaker system to the ZP80.
Pricing: It Depends On Your Point Of View
What's unique about the Sonos' pricing is that it is either extremely expensive or a significant bargain, depending on your point of view. The Sonos ZonePlayers are $499 each for the ZP100 (the one with a built-in amplifier) and $349 for a ZP80 (the one without the amplifier). ZoneControllers cost $399 each, speakers are $179, charging docks for the ZoneController are $49, and a spare charger cables is another $19. The least expensive bundle is $999, which will be fine for many users, but expects users to both BYOS and BYOA.
This pricing makes technical early adopters scratch their heads and whine that compared to most streaming audio players, the Sonos is wildly overpriced. The Omnifi Simplefi I've had in the house for a couple of years, along with products from Pinnacle, Roku, Squeezebox, Linksys, and Apple, all cost between $129 and $299. Other options are mating an iPod with an Apple, Klipsch, or Bose audio dock: presto! music wherever you are. Finally, a cheapskate friend pointed out that boomboxes cost $39 at Target and can also put music in your room. If you'd be happy with a boombox - or even an iPod and an Apple HiFi - then the Sonos is clearly too expensive.
At the other extreme, a custom installed system can cost tens of thousands of dollars for a multi-zone setup that would cost $3,000 or $4,000 with a Sonos. In this respect, the Sonos is an incredible bargain.
The problem with the iPod and boombox is that they are single zone solutions - when you leave that room, you leave your music (and the boombox will only be able to play a fraction of your music collection, digitized or not). True, you could put a speaker dock in every room of your house and move the iPod with you, and if you live alone, this is a perfectly valid solution, but even then you need to move the iPod every time you leave the room, and it's hardly sufficient for a party.
The problem with most streaming media players is that they are either single zone (Apple, Linksys), cannot selectively synchronize music among multiple zones (all but the Squeezebox), have no display for selecting music to play (Apple, Linksys), have only a basic user interface (all), require a reasonable level of comfort with technology for setup (all except the Apple), and cannot accept music from remote sources and stream that around (all).
Where the Sonos Shines
In practice, the biggest drawback to most streaming music solutions is that they either need to be hooked up to a display, which limits where you can put them in the house, or they have a one line display and a rudimentary remote control, which makes moving through large music collections annoying. My wife was delighted when she discovered that with the Sonos she could quickly and easily create disposable mini-playlists by selecting songs and albums and putting them into the queue for just the two rooms she was working in that day. The large screen, scroll wheel, straightforward user interface, and multi-zone capabilities on the Sonos makes that scenario possible, and she discovered it without cracking the owner's manual. (Our five year old also likes choosing his music and routing it to zones throughout the house, but, then, he's five. Today's five year olds can master anything.)
Another neat trick the Sonos does is digitize and stream any source you feed one ZonePlayer to any or all of the other zones in your home. In practice, this means you can plug in a friends iPod, programmed with his party mix, and blast the music all over the house. The ZonePlayer accepts analog signals, so a favorite record or tape can be streamed around as well (though a preamplifier may be needed for phonographs to present a loud enough signal to the system). I even plugged in Nokia's latest music phone and a Kurzweil digital piano and used those as sources. The volume needed to be adjusted based on the source, but, other than that it works like magic.
Custom installed multi-zone audio systems can do all these things, too. There are several systems on the market that offer rich user interfaces, tech-free setup because someone else sets it up, and even remote source streaming. The problem here is one of price: to do what a Sonos does, you might have to pay tens of thousands of dollars for a sophisticated touch-screen based multi-zone system. A single Crestron controller costs more than a basic Sonos system.
The Sonos' sound quality was excellent across the board. The Sonos system could resolve enough detail that the weak link in the chain was typically the codec used to compress the music, not the Sonos wireless system, amps, or speakers. Having said that, it won't convince hardcore audiophiles to give up turntables, tube amps, and a pair of Vandersteen speakers and settle in for a dedicated listening session. But for the types of uses a Sonos system enables, the Sonos provides all the audio performance that's needed.
The speakers (pictured at right - click to enlarge) are actually quite a bargain. Bass is tight, highs are well resolved, and the midrange is pleasant. In a direct comparison, the Carvers were easily audibly superior with better bass and better presence in the treble, but the Carvers are a bipole design and were part of a system back in the day that retailed for a lot more than $179. I can easily recommend the Sonos speakers at their price point.
Installation and Setup
One key drawback is that a hard wired (Ethernet) connection is required from your PC to the first ZonePlayer unit. After that, Sonos has its own built in mesh network (technically not WiFi) that sets itself up automatically. Like all mesh networks, the more nodes (ZonePlayers and ZoneControllers) on the network, the stronger the network will be. The "first node: wired" restriction is not a problem for users who have Ethernet networks in their homes, but how many people does that cover? Worse, unless you're willing to string that first wire out of the computer room, the first ZonePlayer is redundant, as most PCs have speakers attached to them already, and the Sonos Desktop Controller PC software will happily drive them.
Aside from that limitation, the setup process itself is simple even for non-technical users. You do need a PC, but you don't need a home network. To get each unit to discover the network, you simply press the "mute" and "volume up" buttons found on the front of each unit. There are several companies working to make this type of plug and play wireless networking a reality for WiFi, but for now, Sonos' proprietary solution justifies itself well here. After the initial software installation on your PC, the system will literally updates itself and all the ZonePlayers and ZoneControllers with no user intervention required.
Each ZoneController can control all the zones in the system, but users should keep in mind that as they add zones, they'll need to add expensive ZoneControllers as well. There's nothing more frustrating than a powerful multi-zone system that's playing the wrong music in the zone you're in and the ZoneController is several rooms away. This may offend Puritans everywhere, but let's face it, once the remote control was invented, did you ever get up to change the channel again? Now think about going to the other side of your house to change the channel. This is why you need more than one ZoneController.
Over several months I did experience a handful of times where the ZoneController inexplicably locked up. Judging from the message boards, this does not seem to be a widespread problem, but it did give me the opportunity to test out Sonos' tech support. Using the web "call me" feature, the response was instantaneous and the support rep was knowledgeable. The culprit was diagnosed as wireless interference, but resetting the ZoneController also seemed to trigger a software upgrade (which happened automatically in the background) and there have been no problems since then.
Sonos is narrowly targeted: it doesn't do video. At all. In this respect, more capable systems may be a better investment. Interestingly, the best video storage system I have seen, the Kaleidescape, doesn't do audio. So there's clearly something to be gained in simplicity by restricting functionality to one type of media and doing it right. Still, consumers looking for a complete audio, video, and home automation solution will have to look elsewhere.
Even within audio, Sonos is constrained by DRM. REAL Rhapsody subscribers will be thrilled to discover they can access their entire music subscription library through the Sonos. But tracks purchased from iTunes or other Windows Plays For (Almost) Sure DRM stores won't play at all.
The Sonos may not translate well outside the U.S. It is easiest to justify for larger homes, like the McMansions that dot our suburbs where its multi-zone capabilities will be put to good use. It does not make as much sense for urban apartments or any type of home in space-constrained Japan. The system's flexibility only goes so far: Sonos needs water resistant units for the kitchen and bathroom, and an in-wall version for custom installation would be welcome as well. The system as a whole is a bargain but the accessories are badly overpriced, and at least one dock ought to be included with every controller from the outset. Finally, Sonos needs an all-wireless version, where the first unit is WiFi, and Sonos' mesh network takes over from there.
Sonos has done a good job of creating a system that should sell itself to upscale mainstream users, but as long as distributed PC-based audio is in the early adopter phase of market development, Sonos needs to do a better job in its marketing materials explaining how it differs from the Squeezeboxes and Rokus of the world.
As I finish writing this review, my wife is listening to - and singing along loudly with - The Bangles' "Eternal Flame" in the kitchen and family room, while I have The Strokes on in the office. She says we don't have to buy the review sample, but I'm not so sure...
I had to temporarily disassemble my primary multimedia PC system last week (it sits in front of a window that was being replaced) and decided it was finally time to provide some thoughts on multimedia surround sound systems. This is long overdue. How long overdue? One of the systems I intended to review, Klipsch's ProMedia 5.1, was discontinued a few years ago and replaced with the ProMedia Ultra 5.1. The other, a Logitech Z-5500 system the company was kind enough to send over last year, is no longer a new model either. Logitech added the Z-5450 to the line, which offers wireless surround speakers, though, unlike ProMedia, at least the Z-5500 is at least still on the market!
Both THX systems are impressive, and can pressurize my small room to over 110 decibels without distortion - true THX reference level, and way too loud for normal listening without causing permanent hearing damage. As a PC peripheral, they're definitely pricey add-ons. Hard core gamers buying $4,000 PCs should be able to set aside a tenth of that for audio, but with a $400 budget PC it may be harder to justify spending nearly the same amount on the speakers as on the whole computer. Still, when considered as home theater speakers, the systems are quite reasonably priced - you simply won't find HTIB speakers under $400 that compete with them.
However, there is a huge caveat: multimedia systems are designed for use with a PC. With XP Media Center systems and large LCD monitor/TVs proliferating, perhaps that's not as unusual a proposition as it was a few years ago, but there are other considerations as well. Multimedia systems are designed for near-field listening: like studio monitors, speaker designers know where you'll be sitting -- right up in front of the speakers, not ten feet away on your couch. Therefore, while the power and THX certification of these systems ensures often spectacular audio performance in a small room with one or two listeners, they simply aren't designed to be cheap replacements for a living room system. But for secondary systems, dorm rooms, gaming, and small rooms, the performance and value a 5.1 multimedia system can provide is impressive.
My initial experience with Logitech's first generation 5.1 speaker systems was not a positive one: the subwoofer was boomy, and the main speakers added a modest amount of unwelcome colorization to the sound. Klipsch has a long history (decades of experience, actually) with the MicroTractix horn drivers used for upper frequencies in the ProMedia system, and the resulting sound was clearly superior to Logotype's first effort. However, with the Z-5500, Logitech upgraded the main drivers to "polished aluminum phase-plug" units that "combine two drivers into one--the clarity of a tweeter with the richness and fullness of a separate mid-range." Despite my usual skepticism about product marketing drivel (in a past life, I was a product marketing manager myself), in this case, the marketing copy basically has it right. The new driver array is a marked improvement. The subwoofer didn't improve nearly as much; it can play louder than before, but is still too boomy for my taste, overemphasizing sounds in the upper bass region (I'd guess in the 70 - 90 Hz range). In comparison, the Klipsch's sub is well controlled down to about 35 - 40 Hz, after which it basically disappears, which is a fair trade-off for a small system. I suspect that consumers - particularly gamers - may actually prefer the Z-5500's boomier sound, but I'm a home theater snob and wish for better accuracy. The Klipsch sub also provides more flexibile placement options than the Logitech, which comes with a prominent warning not to place the rather large unit directly next to a PC - the exact spot I suspect most users intend to use.
One area where the Logitech solidly trounces the Klipsch and edges closer to HTIB territory is the control unit. The Digital SoundTouch Control Center is quite a bit more than just a volume control. As you'd expect, it can accept multi-channel audio from a PC, but it can also do multichannel decoding itself, supports DTS 96/24, and connects to as many as 6 sources simultaneously. For some users, the flexibility and versatility will be a deciding factor; you could hook up a DVD player directly to the Z-5500 and avoid firing up the PC altogether.
Either of these systems provides a fabulous home theater experience for a PC-based system in a den, home office, or dorm room. To my ears, the Klipsch provides better sound thanks to a tighter subwoofer, but gamers who want things to go "boom" along with consumers looking for additional input and decoding flexibility may want to consider the Logitech first.
Correction: the Logitech Z-5450 has wireless rear surround speakers, not the "Z5540," as originally posted.
Part V, the final installment of my post-CES chronicles; each of these posts includes a quick look back on 2005 trends and a quick discussion of products introduced at CES 2006. This installment: Convergence
Windows XP Media Center Edition PC sales finally took off – but as replacements for home PCs (wherever in the home they may reside, not necessarily the living room), and using traditional vertical box form factors, not the electronics-rack-style Home Theater PC. With Microsoft dropping the requirement for TV tuners, many of the XPMCE PCs were just that – regular PCs with a nifty 10 foot user interface for media control. Meanwhile, PVR functionality was integrated into the cable and satellite box in a big way, and moved time shifting into many more homes. The tech media declared place shifting the next big thing. Place shifting, the notion of watching your content anywhere you are using a web browser, was first introduced by Orb Networks (limited to PC-based content), followed by Sony’s LocationFree TV (control primarily of live TV) and then by Sling Media’s SlingBox (which allows viewing and control of nearly all content, including shows saved to a TiVo or ReplayTV).
Sling Media introduced a Windows Mobile client for the SlingBox, solving one of the big problems of place shifting: very few people spend so much time on the road that they would be willing to buy a gadget to gain access to their home content. But moving the content to any Windows Mobile smartphone is more generally useful; everyone has some down time in their schedule that could be filled with even more TV! SlingBox for Windows Mobile also bypasses a lot of the services that wireless carriers are hoping to sell to consumers directly, and in this sense, it is an extremely disruptive technology.
Part III of my post-CES rantings; each of the next few posts includes a quick look back on 2005 trends and a quick discussion of products introduced at CES 2006. This installment: Audio
Apple’s iPod ate up whatever audio interest there was left after the purchase of that HDTV. The audiophile approach (ignore it and it will go away) didn’t work, the competitive approach (building servers or portable products that compete with the iPod head on) dramatically didn’t work – though there were a handful of exceptions, and the conciliatory approach (if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em) of building iPod docks and add-ons got very, very crowded. One of the more notable exceptions to the “don’t compete with the iPod” rule was Sonos, which piggybacks on existing PC-based music libraries and distributes audio wirelessly around the house. The key to success here is both the flawless user interface and the premium consumer price point. Typical CE pricing would not support the margins Sonos needs to survive, but the Sonos system is still within reach of many consumers, as opposed to custom installed distributed audio systems which can often cost an order of magnitude more.
At CES 2006...
We saw more of everything. Competing with the iPod were several nano clones, Toshiba’s new (and impressive) GigaBeat Portable Media Center, and several Windows Media Center or set top box whole-house server products for storing your music collection (some piggybacking on Intel's new VIIV campaign). The server efforts were at least partly conciliatory, as most included Apple iPod docking capabilities.
This is the second in a series on experiences using and enhancing Windows XP Media Center for home theater.
To control my Media Center, I have two remote controls: one for the audio system, and one for the Media Center itself. (As mentioned last time, I also use the media control buttons from the Logitech DiNovo media pad as a remote of sorts). While this is an extremely basic setup - no plasma TV, no audio receiver, no light control - it still seemed like two remote controls for one desk was overkill, and I had a Logitech Harmony 680 on hand to consolidate things. The 680 is billed as a Media Center PC remote control, and it has a few buttons dedicated to peculiarly Media Center tasks - a big green button to launch the interface, and an "info" button, for example. Like all Harmony remote controls, the idea is that the remote programs itself based on an online questionnaire you fill out. This limits the market for their remotes somewhat to people who have Internet connections, but that's certainly not an issue for an XP Media Center remote!
In a brilliant move, the Harmony 680 works as a stock XP Media Center remote control straight out of the box - no connection to a PC required, no configuration. You do need to put in the batteries, but, in another nice touch, those are also included in the box.
Connecting to the Internet and programming the remote did not go quite as well. After installing the PC software, and registering and creating an account online, I had trouble getting the site to work properly at all until I noticed that my pop-up blocker seemed to be interfering with key messages the site was sending. Pop-ups enabled, the software tried to upgrade the firmware on the remote, but ran into problems. After bouncing around through the "troubleshooting" option, the culprit was discovered: the version of the PC-based software (which connects the remote to the web site) needed to be upgraded, too. None of this is all that unusual when setting up PC products or interacting with rich web sites, but it is a hazard of combining the two.
That accomplished, the next step was testing the setup. There were two main problems. First, the remote simply didn't work for listening to the radio using the Media Center. It seems that the "Listen To Radio" activity defaults to only three or four buttons programmed, which makes changing stations impossible. This was easy to fix once I found the right menu option in the web setup; all the commands are pre-programmed, they just aren't assigned to the buttons for this particular activity. Odd.
The other problem is the way Harmony tracks the "state" (on, off) of your components. With traditional macros (a memorized string of commands), the whole sequence gets thrown out of whack if your DVD player happened to be on when you initiate the "watch a DVD" macro. The Harmony tries to manage the state of things so that it knows what to turn on, and what not to. If there's something out of whack, Harmony's narrated help button ("Is your DVD player on?") puts things back in order. This is one of Harmony's best qualities for controlling a big, dedicated home theater setup, but on a Media Center PC, it was infuriating. With a Media Center PC, you tend to bounce around a lot between activities, jumping from music listening to recorded TV watching and back. There's really never any need to turn off the "amplifier" (powered speakers, in this case). In fact, for a PC-based system that's also used as a regular PC, shutting things down is counterproductive - when you're finished with a music or movie session, you still want the speakers on for email alerts and other Windows sounds.
Shutting down the 680's urge to shut down was similarly easy to do online, once I figured out where in the menu setup this particular option lay. In fact, that's my primary problem with the Harmony system: initial setup is easy. Tweaking is actually easy, too. It's just hard to navigate - the whole system is like a classic PC branching text adventure game from the early 1980s (yes, I know, I'm dating myself). If you follow the path, you might get where you want. Or not. There's no way to see the list of choices and what options reside in which paths. Logitech needs to spend a little more time working out the user interface kinks of the online site.
With the remote finally set up just the way I wanted, it did indeed replace two separate remote controls, and, thus far, I'm finding it about as easy to use as HP's Media Center remote for basic control. Some of the HP's remote's buttons are easier to find by feel - the Harmony's buttons are arranged nicely, but all have the same glossy pearl feel to them, so until your fingers learn which button is where, you need to look down at the remote before pressing things.
The 680 is clearly overkill for my system. But for a larger system where the Media Center PC is the central hub,or just a small part of the home theater, it may be mandatory. There are few real competitors: most universal remotes don't have the right button and command structure to control a Media Center PC, and touch screen remotes are both more expensive and far more difficult to program. Logitech's online setup system does need a little work to make tweaking systems a bit easier, but the basic approach is sound.
In fact, the Harmony approach allows users to control an XP Media Center without explicit programming - just select the Media Center as a device in the questionnairre, and it will work with the 680, or the 688 (which also has dedicated skip forward buttons for use with a TiVo or ReplayTV) or even the new 880 (with a larger and more flexible programmable color screen). The 880 may be preferred when using a large, widescreen monitor with a Media Center PC, as the soft buttons and screen are used to provide aspect ratio control - another button most universal remote controls lack. (We have a Harmony 880 in from Logitech; a full review is planned.)
This is the first in a series on experiences using and enhancing Windows XP Media Center for home theater.
When I needed to upgrade my home office PC earlier this year, I chose to buy a Media Center PC because of the endless testing possibilities it offers. At the time, the Orb service, which lets you stream content from your PC to any Internet connected device, only worked on Media Center PCs (it still requires a PC with a TV tuner card to be compelling). Media Center extenders require a Media Center PC as a hub (though I currently use an omnifi streaming media player, which will work on any Windows XP PC). And previous experience showed that Microsoft's 10 foot user interface was the most functional and elegant solution on the market.
The Media Center PC I purchased, HP's 1095c, comes in a full sized vertical case, not a living room friendly horizontal case. It would not fit in well with a living room based on noise, either - a fan is constantly running. The box came preloaded with XP Windows Media Center 2003; a coupon was provided for an upgrade to the much-improved 2005 version. The upgrade process was relatively smooth and uneventful, but required a tremendous number of stops and starts and restarts (installation babysitting).
Since then, I have had only one area of difficulty - burning recorded TV content to DVD. For whatever reason, Media Center appears to think that the DVD recording drivers are not installed, and gives me error messages. Loading third party tools - such as Roxio's excellent Easy Media Creator 7.5 did not help (despite coming with its own DVD burning engine). I also had trouble simply opening up the recorded TV folder within Easy Media Creator 7.5; the program routinely crashed. Roxio assures me that they're working on identifying and fixing Media Center glitches in future versions of the software.
As a PC, the XP Media Center is an able performer - fast, and versatile. I have not tried any hard core gaming or graphics tests, but I have done video editing on it using Adobe's Premier Elements software. As a home theater component, it is somewhat lacking, largely due to the limited screen size (currently a 19" Samsung LCD). Audio is not a problem: I have hooked up both Klipsch's 5.1 THX ProMedia speakers and Logitech's latest Z-5500 THX 5.1 speaker systems (separate review coming soon).
I was actually most surprised by its capabilities as a "media center." This was unexpected, as I have reviewed XP Media Centers several times before, as dedicated home theater components in our basement (several early HP iterations of XP Media Center), and as "stereo cabinet replacements" in our living room (Gateway's sadly deceased but not forgotten 610 system). I'm certainly familiar with the basic functionality. But I found myself using the system far more than I anticipated - in full 10 foot Media Center user interface mode - while working five feet away on my corporate notebook. I find myself taking work breaks by watching pieces of The Simpsons, skipping through commercials and large chunks of the programming at will. The Media Center is jukebox central, with playlists culled from (legal) downloads and several hundred CD's burned to the hard drive. I also queue up FM radio stations and skip through commercials (if the station has been "paused") or simply bounce around among multiple choices.
Finally, to control all this from the other desk, I have one of two choices always at hand. One is obvious: the Media Center's infrared remote. But I also use Logitech's Bluetooth DiNovo keyboard, which splits out the numeric keybad on a separate unit. The satellite keypad contains several useful items, including a full calculator, notification of new email messages, and media control. I keep the QWERTY section of the keyboard in front of the Media Center (with the mouse next to it in my undersized keyboard tray), and the satellite section on the other desk next to my notebook as a remote control/information center/calculator. The DiNovo is expensive, and was intended to be a statement of style. However, the form factor and flexibility makes the price tag justifiable without aesthetic considerations.
I was at Microsoft's Preview Day today in New York, which for me was largely about mobile devices (see my bio). One thing that came across clearly, however, was the centrality of Windows XP Media Center (XP MCE) to Microsoft's overall consumer plans. This reminded me of an interesting case study in Digital Connect about a custom installer, Silicon East, which has a somewhat unique specialty putting systems into new construction. That's nothing new - when the walls are open, it's the best time to put in home networking gear, and the walls are never more open than during new construction. But rather than get Mr. New Homeowner to buy a typical custom installation A/V system, Silicon East is pushing PC's with XP MCE.
This should be a pretty tough sell, as the notion of using a PC as a media hub still hasn't hit mass adoption yet - at best, builders are content to wire up a house for broadband and create a media nook where a plasma TV can be hung on the wall. Silicon East gets around this by selling the builder first. They actually go out to builders and hook their offices up with MCE boxes. The latest version of XP MCE is nearly as slick as a TiVo (and far more versatile - I'm typing this column on one); once the builders are hooked, they demonstrate it to potential customers in the model homes.
Silicon East gives up some margin figures (7% on hardware, 30% on service), and notes that they turn down business that's likely to be unprofitable (any time the customer uses the term, "Dell"). The initial foray is almost a loss leader - once the customer is hooked, there are follow on opportunities for display sales, system extensions, and all kinds of home automation.
Back in February I wrote about Microsoft's Lightspeed IPTV demo at CES and linked to BusinessWeek's skeptical coverage. Well, the magazine was just biding its time and this week they completely skewer the initiative (subscription required), highlighting the endless delays in commercializing it. It seems the impressive demo I saw at CES was real. The problem is that the technology doesn't work for millions of users at once, which is kind of important for the operators who want to broadly deploy it. Live and learn.
Still, TV over IP seems somewhat inevitable. Japan and Korea have DSL service 10x faster than what U.S. operators provide and at lower prices. I'd think that deploying dramatically faster DSL would both solve many of the technical problems with IPTV and at the same time provide the service justification for consumers to upgrade to broadband (or even switch from cable modems).
I've been testing several digital music players and third party headphones - none of them from Apple. It's not that I don't like the iPod, I just haven't gotten one in recently from Apple. My past experiences with iPod suggest that Apple leads the industry with good reason.
I prefer SanDisk's Digital Audio Player to the iPod Shuffle, though I understand the Shuffle's appeal - particularly the tight integration with iTunes for moving music on and off the device. Still, I prefer seeing the title of what I'm listening to, and the SanDisk has both a screen and a remarkably good user interface for such a small thing. SanDisk has just announced a new flash player with removable memory; I have not gotten one in yet.
For most people looking for a hard drive player, the iPod product line has no equal. I've even recommended an iPod mini for my father (he uses it to study Talmud. Really). But what if you aren't most people? What if you want to subscribe to Yahoo!'s new service? What if you've ripped all your CD's in WMA format? Then you'll need to look outside the land of fruit.
I've used three 5GB players recently, but with Virgin's player now off the market, I'll focus here on Dell's Pocket DJ and Olympus' m:robe 100. Both can play WMA files, and the Dell is compatible with Microsoft "Janus" powered music subscription services (Windows Media 10 with Digital Rights Management). Both have excellent fidelity. Both have just slightly more storage space than the 4GB iPod mini, and cost a bit less (the Olympus actually costs more, but can be bought from discounters online).
The Dell DJ gains versatility by giving up software. It uses Microsoft's Windows Media player for all synchronization and music management activities, which turns out is a good thing. Apple's iTunes synchronization is slightly more straightforward (especially for novices), but Microsoft is running a close second here (and MusicMatch a close third - MusicMatch will recognize and sync with the DJ as well). The physical interface on the DJ is a scroll bar, not a touchpad, and it works fine. The user interface is nothing fancy, and does not try to add PDA functionality or FM radio or voice recording - it's a music player.
The Olympus m:robe 100 has gorgeous industrial design. From the white back it looks like an iPod, but the front is a dramatic glassy black slab with no visible buttons. The whole front surface is touch sensitive, and bright red LEDs light up when needed to indicate where the buttons are. A high resolution red LED screen complements the "buttons." It is a striking design and works well in practice, though the sliding lock switch is a necessity with the m:robe, not an option.
However, there are problems with the m:robe. The headphone jack is on the side, which makes it difficult to pocket the device. The Olympus does not support subscription services. And here's the deal breaker: the Olympus demands that you use its proprietary - and terrible - m-trip PC software for synchronization and music management. You can't drag music files to the device directly, you can't use MusicMatch or Microsoft or Apple's to manage music on the device, and the Olympus m-trip software is missing basic functionality such as syncing playlists and the songs that are associated with them. With a 30GB player, you can move all your music to the device and then mostly forget about it. But with a 5GB player, if you have more than 5 GB of music you need to move things on and off the device frequently. I found the m-trip software too painful to use on a regular basis.
I really wanted to like the m:robe - I love holding and playing with it - and I really wanted to dislike the Dell - design-wise, it's just "OK." Neither beats Apple at its own game. But despite the m:robe being prettier than any iPod, the m:trip software it comes with is too painful to use. As a basic device for playing WMA files or tethered music from subscriptions, the Dell is much easier to recommend.
The current issue of BusinessWeek has a nice overview of Microsoft's efforts in IP TV (sending television feeds to a set top box over a broadband connection). It's a bit skeptical, and focuses on how Microsoft has bent over backwards to address the needs of partners. For example, Microsoft's brand does not appear on the set top box, and the boxes don't even need to run a Microsoft operating system.
I saw a demo of the system at CES, and BusinessWeek leaves out an important element of the story: it's really, really cool. I suppose cable operators adopting this system could simply force their customers to upgrade, but new entrants such as phone companies and alternative broadband providers will need to provide consumers with a reason to move; simple pricing bundles will only go so far.
Microsoft was running a live demo off to the side of their main consumer booth - I literally stumbled into it on the way to a different meeting. What most impressed me about the system was not the alternative angles, more interactive VOD, or even the concept of moving the DVR from your living room back to the service provider. What impressed me about the demo was that it didn't feel like much of a demo at all: image quality was spectacular, and reactions to user input was instantaneous - far faster than changing channels on a satellite STB or HDTV tuner. The main window contained what appeared to be full HDTV, with alternative feeds around it. The user interface was refined, all onscreen graphics were in high resolution, and the EPG (Electronic Programming Guide) appeared simple enough for anyone to use. Feeds switched from one to the other with smooth transitions.
OK, one feature did stand out: easy to use PIP (Picture in Picture) without need for multiple tuners. Nobody actually uses PIP in the real world because setting it up is too complicated. But with "Microsoft TV IPTV Edition" (seriously, who comes up with these horrible names?) you can use PIP to keep an eye on multiple sports games in progress at once. If Microsoft solves the naming problem, they've got a real winner here.
This is such a good idea I wonder why nobody's done it well before. Altec Lansing sent over their XT1 Portable Audio System for notebooks. A DVD-ROM equipped notebook is essentially a giant portable DVD player combined with an iPod with a larger color screen, but most notebooks have terrible internal speakers. Adding external speakers solves the problem at the cost of portability -- even if you did shlep them with you, you'd be dragging along another power brick, too.
The XT1 siphons power off your notebook's USB port which greatly simplifies setup and enables easy portability. Both Windows and Macs are supported. All the cables are included, and most of the time you only need two of them: one to connect the speaker to the PC's USB port, another to connect the other speaker to the first one. Several nice touches abound: the USB cable is provided twice, once with a self-winding mechanism for travel, the speaker connector cable has self-binding velcro tabs, and all the cables fit neatly into their own spot in the included molded protective case. The case is exactly the size of two John Grisham paperbacks lying next to each other (I tested and tested until I found a visual analogy that fits). It's not tiny, but definitely small enough to fit in a backpack along with your notebook. Setup and use is simple.
The tradeoffs are volume and bass. Your USB port provides just a trickle of wattage. The XT1 is plenty loud if you're sitting in front of the speakers (which is where you'll be if you're watching a movie on your notebook), but won't fill a large hotel room with sound. Audio quality is pretty good. Highs are crisp, instruments are well defined (my ThinkPad's audio is rather muddy), and there is plenty of mid-bass energy (also somewhat lacking on the ThinkPad). There is still no deep bass to speak of -- the official rating only goes down to 100hz, and I suspect that the response drops off a bit before that. In practical terms, this means that music and movies sound dramatically better than a notebook's internal speakers, but not as good as a comparably priced amplified sub/sat system. If you don't need portability, there are better choices out there (including several from Altec Lansing).
The XT1 thoughtfully provides an Aux in port and cable for connecting MP3 players and the like (though it still must be jacked into your notebook's USB port for power). I plugged in Sandisk's Digital Audio Player and listened to several hours of pop and classic rock encoded as variable bit rate WMA files. Music sounded rich and full and didn't lack much for low end punch -- drums had a decent thwack, and bass guitar notes were distinguishable. On movies, the low end was more obviously lacking. I tested both the THX logo (a test tone and a logo all in one!) and the sonic depth charge scene from the DVD of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Overly High Expectations. The asteroid chase was fun -- upper frequency sounds were clear -- but suffered greatly in comparison to my Klipsch THX system or the Logitech Z-5500 THX multimedia system I promise I'll finish reviewing one of these days. When the XT1 is pushed to the top of its volume range, there is audible distortion and some sibilance on dialog. No provision for using the XT1 with a subwoofer is provided.
The only directly comparable product I have in house is the Virgin boomtube. The boomtube's sound is a bit more defined, it plays a bit louder, and Virgin offers an EX version that provides actual bass. However, the boomtube is considerably heavier as it relies on batteries, an optional power converter, or both. The boomtube has multiple wires for setup and no place to store them (or the power adapter) in the case. The boomtube's aluminum speaker drivers are not covered by a protective grill - a big no-no for a portable device -- my four year old accidentally dented the drivers with his fingers within minutes of my unpacking the unit. I also question whether the boomtube's design is airport security friendly; the thing looks like a pipe bomb.
I love the boomtube, but the XT1 is probably the unit I'd take with me when I know I'm going to watch a movie on my notebook once I get to wherever it is I'm going. The XT1 design team clearly thought through the implications of portability, and, as a result, the XT1 also makes for a nice improptu music system on the road. However, it doesn't play loud enough for road warriors looking to give multimedia presentations in large conference rooms or for throwing a headbanger's party in your hotel room afterwards.
Former colleague Joe Wilcox notes that most computer brands are met with cognitive dissonance when they journey into consumer electronics. Joe is definitely on to something (though his observations are backed by admittedly anecdotal evidence -- don't you think that's something you guys over at JupiterResearch should be testing empirically?)
Another part of the problem, though, is that consumers are slow to fully understand the implications of digital technology - never mind convergence. (OK, I'm working with entirely anecdotal evidence here as well, but bear with me). When I meet new people and invite them to watch a movie in my home theater, the first question I get is how big my TV is. I usually respond that the TV is besides the point, we watch movies on a projector. This is invariably met with blank stares, followed by, "a projector? How do you watch movies? Don't you have DVDs?" Saying, "yes, it's a digital projector" results in polite affirmative nods but usually the same deer-in-the-headlights look in their eyes. (One person actually asked whether I have a projectionist.) Only once you walk people through the steps does the whole concept click into place.
Here are the steps:
I expected this situation a few years ago, but despite four generations of DLP since my first projector, little has changed. This isn't unique to home theater projectors, a category which has little mass market awareness. How many consumers understand HDTV at even the most basic level - meaning they can differentiate between the format and plasma televisions? I've been using the Zenith ZHDTV1 antenna in my basement, and, not surprisingly, its distinctive shape generates a lot of questions as to what, exactly, it is. When I say it's an HDTV antenna I get those blank stares again - "you can get HDTV using an antenna?"
The implications of the digitization of everything requires a cognitive leap. (For an extreme example, take my mother, please. When I described Sony Ericsson's s710a megapixel cameraphone to her, she asked "how can they fit such a nice camera into a phone -- where does the film go?")
Companies that have walked consumers through these steps have benefited. Consumers are just now beginning to wrap their heads around MP3 players because Apple built a simple vertically integrated system from content to consumption. Similarly, Echostar has had tremendous success -- though much less publicity -- with their integrated HDTV TV/satellite/installation bundle.
HP and Optoma have the right idea with DVD/player/speaker all-in-one units, but they can't assume that consumers will understand what you do with them, never mind why they need one in the first place. As another example, I think Sonos' distributed audio system is brilliant - it takes advantage of your PC's existing music library and spreads the wealth. But I hope the company can survive on sales to custom installers and early adopters for a while, because it's going to take the rest of the world a long time before the concept sinks in.
I spent most of my time at CES focused on mobile devices, but did note a few overriding trends:
My final trend is a question: could CES be getting too big to be relevant? It's always been hard to get around the show, and the weather didn't help (when it snows in Vegas it's fair to say hell has frozen over). Next year CES kicks the Adult Video show out of the Sands and takes over that venue, too. But at the same time, CEDIA has been getting a lot of the big home theater announcements, the wireless device vendors are saving their news for CTIA, and the mobile media player market is all focused on MacWorld.
UEI launched the Nevo SL "Pronto killer" touch screen remote control here last night in Las Vegas, and it's got two really interesting features: a better programming interface than Philips offers for the Pronto (not that that's saying much - the Pronto programming environment is terrible), and built in WiFi. WiFi could be used for just about anything - the remote is based on a version of Windows Mobile - but at least initially the idea is to stream media from one PC to another. Now, that may seem a bit ahead of its time, but according to Current Analysis*, 11% of all consumer PCs sold this holiday season were XP Media Centers, so there's beginning to be an installed base for this sort of thing. Store your digital photos on the PC in the bedroom, stream them over to the Media Center in the den - all using the same remote. An adapter will be available to use WiFi to act as an IR blaster; not quite as good as full RF support (coming later in the product life cylce, I'm told) but it should allow installers to hide gear in a cabinet or closet and control it via the Nevo SL.
The Nevo SL isn't as comprehensive as offerings from Crestron, nor does it offer state-sensing add-ons (also coming later in the product life cycle). At $799, it's also nowhere near as expensive as those offerings, and competes directly against the Philips Pronto. UEI's extensive code database is included, but unlike recent versions of the Pronto, no provision for automatic configuration is included. This would be a deadly omission if the product was aimed at consumers, but UEI assures me that the product will be sold through the CEDIA custom install channel. That makes sense, but someone should tell their marketing department: none of their literature, press releases, signage, or press kits breathes a word about custom installers or how this product can benefit them. This isn't just a failure to communicate benefits, it actively works against UEI: if I were a custom installer, I'd be afraid that consumers - enthusiasts, mostly - would think that they could buy this remote themselves, leading to channel conflict. As Home Theater View has advocated in the past, channels need to be considered for their individual needs.
*Note: Avi Greengart is a Principal Analyst for Current Analysis
SBC preannounced their big CES news: a set top box that combines satellite TV programming, digital video recording, video on demand, and Internet content. There have been everything-but-the-kitchen-sink set top boxes before (anybody remember last CES? the year before that?), but I believe that this is significant for one reason: distribution. Most of the converged set top box dreams of years past are all about consumer technology value propositions: distributing content around the house, moving photos and music off the PC, and providing Internet access from the TV. That's nice, but other than increased tech support calls, there's little incentive for content owners to sell it.
But this is different. From what I can tell, the consumer value proposition for the SBC/Yahoo!/Dish/(did I leave someone out?) gizmo is simply saving money and consolidating billing relationships; any technical goodies are gravy. The convergence factor is just a means to an end: this is all about services bundling, which should reduce churn and protect these customers from being snatched away piecemeal by cable or satellite or Verizon.
I was interviewing a custom installer about using PCs as video scalers, and he said something that applies, more or less, to any serious use of PCs for home theaters: the only way to have a reliable PC-based A/V system is to have a PC dedicated solely to A/V. I've had several XP Media Center Edition systems in over the past couple of years, and that's certainly one way to do it. The downside to Media Center PCs is that they're pricey if you don't need the full suite of functionality, and though they've gotten much better, they are still more complicated than a standalone ReplayTV/TiVo/iPod/DVD player.
But dealing with regular XP on my test PC has been a nightmare lately, proving the basic truth to the dedicate-it-and-forget-it ethos. Logitech was kind enough to send over a Z-5500 THX approved multimedia speaker system last month, so I felt obligated to review it at some point, rather than have the large box just sit in the corner, unloved. But before I installed it, I wanted to run my regular audio tests on the competition - Klipsch's ProMedia 5.1 system, another THX multimedia system I've had for the past year or two. I barely got started.
Preventing me from getting consistent, accurate multichannel audio:
True, much of this is my fault. It's a test box, after all, and I've put countless versions of video rendering software, media playback software, aspect ratio control doodads, music device sync software, DVD-Audio and DTS decoding engines, etc. on it. I also use the box for web surfing, finance, photo editing, vector graphics, children's software - you name it. Somewhere along the way, the basic audio drivers and system performance got warped. Given enough time and PC expertise, I can fix it. But it's a clear reminder that the flexibility of PC-based systems can be in direct conflict with ease of use and reliability.
Musicmatch is one of several music playback programs for PCs, along with offerings from Microsoft, Real, Apple. With a good multimedia sound system -- I'm working on reviews of THX systems from Klipsch and Logitech -- you can use these programs to listen to music at your PC. The programs also allow you to transfer music to portable devices, or stream music around your house with various add-on gadgets (though access to copy-protected music is usually not available in that scenario). The programs now also offer access to online music stores for purchasing music (by track or by album) or renting it (subscription access to the entire library).
Musicmatch 10 is now out, and by combining their On-Demand subscription service with the remarkable new iteration of their AutoDJ feature, you almost end up with a new way to listen to music. I'm sure I'm leaving a few things out, but here's my hierarchy of music listening options:
Musicmatch's new OnDemand AutoDJ combines the best of having a large library of music files that you own with access to a subscription library. It automatically creating playlists combining music it selects from your MP3 library with music it selects from the OnDemand library based on some fairly simple inputs. You provide a quick list of artists (you drag and drop a few songs into the list to give it a starting point), it does the rest. In my experience, it managed to create surprisingly good playlists of songs I wanted to hear, songs I didn't know I wanted to hear, and songs I'd never heard before but have now added to my rotation. And this was with a fairly eclectic mix - movie score music (Elfman, Williams), blues rock (Delbert McClinton, Kenny Wayne Shepherd), Top 10 women-power pop (Kylie, Britney, Dido), and 70's singer/songwriter rock (Jackson Browne, JT). I didn't ask for Rolling Stones or Dire Straights, but it knew! It knew! Simple slider controls are provided for controlling the mix of your library with OnDemand, and how popular/obscure you want the selections to be. Fabulous stuff.
[Update: Subsequent playlists also gave me a lot of Bob Dylan. There should be a way to tag stuff you don't ever want to hear again, and it should learn from every time you hit the "track skip" button...]
Musicmatch admits that OnDemand users actually end up buying more paid downloads (to be able to move to a portable player, or just for permanence). They can't prove a causal relationship - it's possible that subscribers are simply more likely to pay for anything. Still, from my experience you can make a reasonable argument that subscription services are basically giant music discovery services.