Welcome to My (Almost) Wired Home

Even after a lot of setting up, your dream might not quite come true

If anybody is ready for the digital lifestyle, it's my 7-year-old son, Will. Dad's job, reporting on technology, is usually incomprehensible to him. But he was pretty excited when I told him I was going to try to set up a wired home. And it was pure magic when I downloaded a collection of James Brown songs from the eMusic subscription service to my PC and played them through my stereo system. When the hardest-working man in show business (that would be James Brown, for the uninitiated) belted out Say It Loud, my green-eyed, towheaded offspring boogied around the living room, shouting back: "I'm black, and I'm proud."

The idea behind this project was to see if the much-ballyhooed idea of a wired home had finally become a reality. I dreamed of creating a home network where I could connect computers and a handful of other entertainment devices to one another and to the Web. I wanted to store thousands of songs on a pc and be able to pick out a tune and play it through my stereo system at a moment's notice. I wanted to record my favorite TV programs on my PC's hard drive and play them back on my own time. I wanted to store my photo album on my PC and shoot pictures off to a digital frame in the living room, so that a different picture could pop up every few days. And I wanted services that would allow me to pick songs and movies from huge Web libraries that I could download whenever the spirit moved me.

Turns out I wanted too much. While I found I could do most of those things, the sad truth is that Will will be a teenager before most of this stuff actually is cheap and easy to use. Right now, the wired home is a mishmash of technology that we have to patch together ourselves. Some pieces work smoothly. But most of it is too expensive to buy, too challenging to set up, or too limited to be really worth the effort.

Still, I had a blast trying. Everybody got into the swing of things. My wife rolled her eyes every time I hauled a new gadget into the house, wondering why we really needed a home network or a video-game console that could connect to the Web. But she was pretty hyped about jogging with Apple Computer's iPod, which now works with Windows PCs, that I loaded with 800 songs from our collection. Neighbor Jim was enamored with a picture frame that cycles through digital photos. And neighbor Whit plugged a wireless card into his laptop to tap into my high-speed Web link.

To get my connected home up and running, I wanted a powerful PC preloaded with whizzy entertainment software. I went for the new Sony VAIO Digital Studio PC, a $1,700 unit that includes a tuner card to watch TV and a burner to copy music and video files onto CDs or DVDs.

The next step: Updating my poky old dial-up Internet connection with high-speed access to the Web. Depending on where you live, you can choose between a cable connection or a digital subscriber line (DSL) to rev up your Net link. I picked cable because I could get a higher speed connection at a lower cost--$45.95 per month vs. $54.95. And even though I'm paying twice as much as my dial-up connection, I'm zipping through the Net, opening up graphics-heavy Web pages in a jiffy instead of waiting 30 seconds or more for photos to appear.

Then, I added the final bit of technical plumbing to make everything work together: a home network, which connects all the digital devices in my home to each other and to the Internet. I chose the most common type, a wireless one, commonly called Wi-Fi. I could have used a handful of other technologies, such as HomePlug, which routes your files through the electrical wiring in your house, or Home Phoneline Networking Alliance (HPNA), which does the same thing through your phone jacks. And while there are lots of companies making home network gear, I went with Linksys, the market leader.

The keystone of the network is Linksys' wireless router, and hooking up my two computers took a painless 20 minutes. I plugged my aging Compaq Presario into the router with a short piece of cable, and I plugged a little wireless gizmo into the Sony to send signals back and forth to the router over the air. Poof! Both PCs were instantly online.

A week later, my office laptop was online, too, after I slid a wireless adapter, complete with tiny antenna, into a slot on the side. Presto! My instant-messaging software popped up, and a few seconds later I was zipping through my e-mail during the evening news--all from the comfort of my sofa. It was a defining moment: I decided I couldn't live without a home network.

With the foundation in place, I was ready to roll. The first toy I tried was Sony's Giga Pocket--software that turns the computer into something of an electronic jackalope, part PC, part TV. I just connected the TV jack on the back of the Sony to a cable-TV jack on the wall. Now, I could watch TV on the PC. Even better, I could record TV shows on the hard drive. Heard of TiVo, the personal recording technology that's revolutionized the TV world? It's similar technology, but without the monthly $12.95 fee.

You might think that, given the cleverness of Giga Pocket, Sony would have entertainment technology nailed. Not quite. The most annoying part about watching TV on a PC is that--well, it's on a PC. I keep my computer in my home office, which is a cubbyhole of a room in the basement. So where's the gear that sends shows to the TV upstairs in my living room?

O.K., the TV stuff was interesting, but the real thrill of a connected home is getting all sorts of other non-PC gadgets online. The first thing I hooked up was Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox game console. On Nov. 15, Microsoft (MSFT ) will launch Xbox Live, which will let gamers compete against each other over the Net. I'm using an early version of the service. Linksys makes something called a Wireless Ethernet Bridge that, for about $100, does the trick when you're trying to connect to something other than another PC. It took a few steps to set up the Xbox to go online. Within minutes I was playing Revolt, a car-racing game, against three other Xbox Live gamers.

It's relatively easy for devices to share a Net connection. The bugaboo with home networking has always been sharing files stored in the computer with other computers or other digital devices. Not one of the suppliers has made it easy. And that's exactly where I ran into trouble with the $299 AudioTron, the one piece of my setup that I had most eagerly anticipated. It's a slick gadget that sits among your stereo components and connects to a PC. In theory, it pulls your music files from your PC and plays them through your stereo.

As much as I wanted it to work, the AudioTron tripped me up time and again. I used the wireless bridge to connect the AudioTron to my home network. But the setup program could never connect the AudioTron to the VAIO, so my 800 songs stayed trapped inside the PC. I finally had to call customer support to get the system working.

I also played around with another music player--the Apple iPod for Windows--and grew to love it. When it appeared a year ago, it worked only with Macintosh computers. Even with such a limited market, it was a hit. In August, Apple (AAPL ) introduced three versions of the iPod that work with Windows PCs, including the one I used, a $399 model that holds 2,000 songs.

There's a lot to love about the iPod. Its sleek design is almost sexy. Its storage capacity is mind-boggling. But the best part is that it's the easiest MP3 player I've ever used. It's simple to wade through hundreds of songs on the six-line, backlit display. Apple has built in a scroll wheel to rifle through your music library, which automatically switches to a volume controller when music starts playing.

A handful of Web sites are offering consumers the ability to listen to music and watch movies online. I subscribed to eMusic because, unlike its competitors, eMusic will let me download and copy files to other players, such as the iPod, with no extra charge.

For $9.99 a month, it's a fine service, if you don't mind the esoteric mix of music. The major music labels seem to loathe the idea, fearing that customers will copy their entire catalogs and quit the service after a month. What's there is a ragtag collection of independent labels and musty old tunes. I downloaded a John Hiatt album and songs from Otis Redding, Mojo Nixon, and Johnny Cash. But if you're looking for Britney Spears, you've come to the wrong place.

The final piece of my home network was a digital picture frame. Unfortunately, it's nearly impossible to find digital frames that can plug directly into a home network. But I found digi-frame: At $2,999, it's hardly a gadget for the masses. The device is essentially a 17-inch flat-screen monitor with computing power and a network connection built in.

It wasn't too hard to get digi-frame up and running. I used the wireless bridge once again to connect the frame to my network. The slightly geeky user's manual walks you through setting things up. It took me about 30 minutes. I picked a handful of my favorite snaps--then drag-and-dropped them into a special folder dedicated to the picture frame. A second later, a shot of Sam, my 4-year-old, sticking out his tongue, popped up on the screen.

For all its pitfalls, the wired home can be a lot of fun. Sure, it's too difficult to get devices connected to one another. Prices of the truly compelling gadgets are way too steep for my budget. And, to be honest, I'm not sure I would have had the patience to get everything hooked up if it wasn't part of my job. Right now, the wired home has a lot more going against it than for it. But the second it gets easier and cheaper, you can count me in.

By Jay Greene

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