Online Extra: Streaming Media at Home: Still Upstream
In the quest for a perfect digital-home setup, it's one step forward, two steps back. You may already have gotten the glitzy new flat-panel TV and the ear-shattering stereo system. You also may have shelled out $1,000 to record HD programming from cable and satellite sources. Chances are, though, that you've hit a wall if you've tried to set up a way of streaming HD content from room to another.
The technology exists for HD streaming, but much of the delay comes from the unsettled state of copy protections. The Federal Communications Commission only this summer approved different standards from consumer-electronics companies and from Microsoft (MSFT ) that would allow users to shift shows sent with digital copy protections from one device to another. But Hollywood and others in the entertainment industry are still demanding greater defenses against pirates who can turn out perfect digital copies.
WHERE'S THE PICTURE?
The unsettled state of affairs means that most of the time you'll be confined to watching cool HD content in the room where you get it. Work-arounds do exist, however. For instance, I hooked up a ReplayTV 5500 digital-video recorder to my Comcast HD cable set-top box in the bedroom and was able to record high-definition shows at a downgraded CD-like quality of 480 scanning lines. I could then, using my home Internet network, send these recordings to another ReplayTV unit in the living room.
Another product I tried was Belkin's $500 Pure AV RemoteTV, which aims to send DVD movies and TV shows to other rooms in the home. The system, using composite cables and a router and receiver, was a breeze to set up. Using 5-Ghz wireless technology, streaming the movie worked fine. But when I tried to send digital content from either a cable or satellite box to a TV in another room, all I could get was the sound.
Belkin's manual says RemoteTV allows you to transfer only "standard definition" programming, or analog shows, from one TV to another. I was able, however, to hook the unit to Dish Networks' HD digital-video recorder and stream the included Sirius satellite radio programming from one room to another. Perhaps the next iteration of RemoteTV will move the bar higher.
For music buffs, many of the media adapters coming to market do a fine job of streaming digital music. One particular favorite is Sonos' Digital Music System, an elegantly designed gray-and-white ensemble that lets you stream different music or Internet radio channels to different rooms in the home. At $1,200 for two ZonePlayer units and a full-color handheld LCD controller, the system isn't cheap. But it's a simple solution that doesn't need a stereo system because its uses its own wireless setup to beam music to the ZonePlayers, which are connected to speakers placed in a particular room.
Portable satellite radio receivers are another option. Delphi's $130 SkyFi2 is a hand-size unit that slips into a $69 cradle you can hook up to receivers in multiple rooms or your car to get CD-quality, commercial-free music and talk from satellite provider XM Radio for a $9.99 a month subscription fee. For an additional $3.99, you can skip buying the extra cradles and enjoy the same XM service through multiple PCs.
XM also recently announced a $350 Delphi MyFi portable player that will hit store shelves in time for the holidays. It has a built-in satellite antenna and on-board hard drive that allows users to record five hours of programming.
For those looking to update their home-networking technology, Belkin's $149 Pre-N router uses new so-called Smart Antenna technology from Silicon Valley startup Airgo Networks. It's based on an upcoming wireless standard called 802.11n, which is likely to replace the current consumer favorite, 802.11g. The new Wi-Fi flavor increases both range and throughput and is expected to be key for moving large digital files around the home.
Using an accompanying $99 notebook-card adapter, I was able to surf the Web from a laptop across the street and slightly down the block from my San Francisco home, despite a number of competing Wi-Fi networks that could have caused interference. A Belkin spokeswoman says tests show the ability to stream video is greatly enhanced with the Airgo technology.
The downside, however, is that you need to buy the notebook- or PC-card adapter to see the router's full benefits. And since the new Wi-Fi standard won't be formally approved until late next year, Belkin's Pre-N router may not work with other 802.11n gear from competing companies.
For now, the world of all-things digital remains a work in progress. But someday soon, you'll be able to get your customized content when you want, where you want it. That's enough to make even the most jaded couch potatoes happy.
By Cliff Edwards in Silicon Valley