Although the application of wireless networking to the creation of highly configurable entertainment networks is in its infancy, many of the pieces you need to create such a network are starting to be introduced. Some of these devices are conventional adaptations of components you already have in a sound system, such as the 900 MHz Sony Wireless Speaker system. The wireless station of this system broadcasts an audio source from a receiver or TV to a couple of wireless speakers (or headphones). Other devices, such as the SMC EZ-Streaming Universal Wireless Multimedia Receiver (SMCWMR-AG), are relatively new types of low-cost file servers specially configured for streaming media files over a wireless connection. The typical streaming multimedia device is limited in the file formats it can work with, and that is one of the reasons for selecting one device over another. In this chapter, we look at the wireless devices that you can use to stitch your home entertainment network together, and what capabilities those devices offer.
Wireless technology makes great sense in home entertainment networks because of the relatively low cost involved in adding wireless capability to devices, and because of the convenience they give you. When you factor in the speed of some of the more recent 802.11 protocols, even streaming large video files is workable. With wireless technology you have a much greater degree of freedom in placing the components where you want them. Most people do not live in homes or work in buildings that have special audio/video (AV) wall jacks, nor do most homes have CAT5 Ethernet pulled through the walls. Although you can retrofit buildings to accommodate new networks, it is both costly and troublesome. The flexibility that wireless links provide also allows you to manage your entertainment WLAN from different locations and with different devices and software, shifting to better technology as time goes by.
Digital media transmission also allows you to remove physical barriers to entertainment access, as well. Through the use of network shares and servers, you can access digital libraries of audio and digital video files from anywhere you have wireless coverage, resulting in entertainment and information on demand. A wireless MP3 jukebox (when they finally become available as a standard feature) would allow you to choose the music you want to listen to at any time by downloading just those tracks from your audio library before you head out the door to the gym or to work. (At the moment, we are limited to add-on wireless playback devices such as Belkin’s TuneCast Mobile FM transmitter, which turns your iPod into an FM radio station.) With a Personal Video Recorder, or PVR, you can record just the programs you want and view them later (time shifting), and eliminate commercials, which greatly improves the quality of what you watch. Devices such as TiVo (which, after all, is a special-purpose Linux box) as well as specially configured computer systems you’ll learn about later can be part of your entertainment network, and they can dramatically improve the TV viewing experience. Networking computers has always made sense because it lets you share precious resources; and with an entertainment network you get the same value.
So many different approaches exist to creating a home entertainment network that it’s impossible to delineate them in a stepwise fashion. You’ll find that some people add entertainment devices to networks with a wireless connection, others add a computer such as a PCTV or Windows Media Center edition to their entertainment system, while still others find that they have a network provided for them by their cable operator. There’s no right approach, but there are differences in the requirements for the use of wireless networking to tie all these different approaches together. It is “early days” for these technologies with lots of new products coming to market every month, so it’s also impossible to know which product types will become consumer and industry favorites. Still, there are sensible principles you can apply that are described in this chapter. We’ll discuss what adherence to standards, doing what you can to minimize cross-vendor incompatibilities, and other choices can do to help.
Digital Convergence in the Wireless Era
Digital convergence generally means the integration of consumer electronic devices with intelligent information management devices. When you combine digital media with the ability to manipulate audio, video, text, and binary data of all types, you can create new types of applications, new types of devices all networked together. It’s an area that you as a consumer should not take lightly because this technology will become a pervasive component of your everyday life.
An entertainment network should offer you the following capabilities:
• Simple connectivity for your devices (strive for device interoperability)
• A software framework built on standard methods for device discovery, configuration, and management (such as SNMP, the Simple Network Management Protocol)
• Standard media formats and transport or streaming protocols
• A standard way of managing your media within your framework
• A digital rights mechanism that protects intellectual copyrights so that everything is nice and legal
That’s a tall order to fill (particularly on the software side), but the industry can achieve it in time. You should do all you can to strive for maintaining these characteristics in any home entertainment network that you choose to build; these are the elements you should look for when you purchase and install new components that will be part of your entertainment network.
The consumer electronics market dwarfs the computer market in scale. At the Comdex and Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, that difference is very obvious. Consumer applications of computer technology have been a bright spot over the past three or four years in the computer industry, and computer vendors have been rushing to position themselves for what they see as an essential emerging new industry based around a home network (see Figure 14-1). The new products being introduced seek to take advantage of developments like HDTV, surround sound, digital cameras, the Personal Video Recorder (PVR), the Digital Versatile Disk (DVD) and other new storage devices, and home automation by integrating those technologies into their products. For example:
• Microsoft offers the Windows Media Center edition operating system for the home market and both Microsoft and Intel have connected home initiatives.• Gateway has a best-selling plasma monitor to complement one of the better Media Center PCs (the Gateway Media Center FMC-901X) on the market, which is a natural extension of the company’s pioneering efforts from its Destination PCTV series.• Apple dominates the MP3 jukebox market with its iPod series.• Epson offers the Livingstation HDTV projection TV, which comes with a dye sublimation printer and smart media support built in allowing you to print high-definition images on demand.• Any number of companies including HP, Sony, Netgear, D-Link, SMC, and others sell wireless streaming media hubs or receivers.
• Comcast can offer you both high-speed broadband Internet access as well as on-demand video services (see Figure 14-2).• LG Electronics is offering a networked/Internet refrigerator (something that Motorola demo’ed as a concept in 1999).• Westinghouse has a line of connected home appliances that use the Windows CE .NET operating system. Its line includes a microwave oven, coffee maker, and bread maker, along with a home hub with a CD/FM/clock and Internet access and the iCEBOX kitchen PC with an LCD screen and wireless keyboard.• Omnifi’s DMP2 (www.omnifimedia.com/products/omnifi_products.jsp) car audio/video player synchronizes content with either a USB or 802.11g connection with your home media servers so that you can play it in your car.• Motorola’s Home Theater System DCP501 provides a digital cable receiver, DVD/CD/MP3 player, 100 watts by 5-channel amplifier, and an AM/FM stereo receiver in one package.
The Different Viewpoints
The problem with digital convergence and with the marketplace in general at the moment is there are few industry standards in place, and what standards do exist are in a flux. This goes beyond the simple things that come to mind such as file formats and media types to the entire philosophy of how to wirelessly network your entertainment system. Ask different vendors to describe their ideal entertainment network and you have a situation similar to the parable of the blind men describing an elephant. Each different vendor views digital convergence with a unique perspective, and sees it for something different. Thus:
• To a PC vendor the central control is exercised by a multimedia PC as part of a network operating system.• To a cable provider, the focus is on the set-top box, a centralized computer system, and very fast signal transmission.• To an AV house or to a custom hi-fi system integrator, convergence is when they program a remote control (RC) with some intelligence such as the original standard setter, the programmable Philips Pronto remote, more recent entries like the Home TheaterMaster MX-300 (a superior hard button remote), to the new embedded software solution from Universal Electronics called Nevo (www.mynevo.com/home.htm), shown in Figure 14-3.• To the audiophile, the focus is a surround sound receiver, and to the movie buff it’s an HDTV-based home theater.
These different viewpoints have direct consequences for you, as each industry tries to tie together the different devices used in a home entertainment network using different types of network connections. A PC might use Ethernet or the 802.11x family of wireless radio frequency networks; a cable company’s transmission is over a coaxial line or is a downlink from a satellite feed; an HDTV might connect to a video source using a DVI cable; a video camera uses FireWire; handheld remotes use infrared or radio frequencies; and stereo and surround sound setups make direct high-quality component connections between devices using component video and audio cables. What a mess.
From your viewpoint, however, none of this should really matter much. It simply makes sense to use the best current technology that you can find to get the job done and hope that over time the industry will create better interoperating products.
There’s a strong incentive for vendors to do just that. Any wireless vendor with a product that conflicts with other wireless devices is just asking for trouble. If you wander about your house using a 900 MHz Sennheiser R85s wireless headphone, your primary consideration is the connected range. A frequency of 2.4 GHz on a wireless headphone might be better for hi-fi sound, but not if it conflicts with an 802.11x wireless network or your microwave oven—something the Amphony 2000 headphones apparently did. You can live with the momentary loss of your headphones, but you undoubtedly will be sending a component back if it never works. Wi-Fi products that don’t interoperate well will also get replaced.
The Digital Living Network Alliance
To make home products interoperate, a number of computer and electronics vendors have assembled a working group that hopes to drive standards and test interoperability. Originally called the Digital Home Working Group (DHWG), it is now called the Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) (www.dlna.org/about). The goal of the alliance is to define what a digital home should include, and how to make products compatible with one another. Although wireless networking is only a part of it, some studies have been published by the alliance detailing wireless usage. The number of home entertainment network connected devices is predicted to double every year through 2007. The study shows the 35 connections in 2003 on average per network rising to 183 in 2007.
The DLNA sees the overall market as focused on three converging areas of technology:
• Consumer Electronics (CE)• Mobile• Computers and Computer Networks
An Overview of Wireless Digital Devices
The DLNA has tried to classify the major product types of a convergent entertainment network. Its developed categories are instructional. The first classification is Digital Home Server (DHS) devices. DHS devices create content, provide storage and access capabilities, and allow copyright protection while maintaining a standard digital home interoperability model (which is to be developed). DHS devices are characterized by component and user service management capabilities in a rich user/network interface, the built-in intelligence to respond to events, and media management.
Some DHS devices include:
• Advanced set-top boxes• Personal Video Recorders• PCs• Stereo and home theaters with hard disk drives • Broadcast tuners• Video and imaging capture devices, such as cameras and camcorders• Multimedia mobile phones
The second device category is Digital Home Rendering (DHR) devices. DHR components play content and render or display content. DHR devices include:
• TV monitors• Stereo and home theaters• Printers• PDAs• Multimedia mobile phones• Wireless monitors• Game consoles
The first step in building a wireless home entertainment network is to determine the places where wireless technology makes sense and can offer value. The most logical possibilities are the following:
• At your incoming broadband connection (most typically cable or DSL) with a wireless router. You might choose to select this location if you want to have an entirely wireless network, or if your incoming broadband connection is in a place that isn’t easily wired to your main network. Wi-Fi Networking: Rated “G” for Everyone“. That review chose the Linksys Wireless-G WRT54GS router as its editors’ choice. • At an Ethernet hub with an access point. This location provides support for mobile devices in a location where a wired network can be connected to your entertainment network.• At a pair of Ethernet hubs with two access points in a bridging configuration. A bridge would serve as a wire replacement for the connection of your entertainment network and your computer network.• At important central control devices such as a digital media receiver or home theater TV. This location provides wireless support for mobile devices at the center of your entertainment network.
NoteHome Networking from the Ground Up,” by Stephanie Chang, appeared in the April 6, 2004 issue of PC Magazine.
TVs and Set-Top Boxes
Many modern TVs, especially ones that are HDTV or HDTV-ready, are intended as stand-alone systems. They come with a set of connections that any receiver might be proud of. Some can be set up to be a surround sound system on their own with a set of built-in speakers that create the front sound stage. The idea is that you add a subwoofer to get the bass response. Because many HDTV manufacturers create integrated displays, the obvious next step might be to add networking capabilities. At the moment, most people create a surround sound theater system by connecting an HDTV to their surround sound receiver, thus defeating the purpose of the internal speakers and amplification provided by their TVs. Today’s home entertainment networks have a lot of redundant parts, so let’s hope future choices will be more modular.
The current choices for cabling on HDTVs are optical connections (best quality) and RCA connections. Video can be S-Video, component video, DVI, or on some sets FireWire (IEEE 1394). Component video gives reasonably good video display, FireWire is better, and there seems to be growing consensus that DVI will be the emerging high-end standard. If you choose to use a computer as your tuner, most of these connections are offered by a good tuner card and/or a breakout box (like the one that comes with ATI’s All-in-Wonder boards, discussed later in the chapter). To date there are no TVs that are networkable because manufacturers have chosen to put that capability in set-top boxes, receivers, DVD players, and other components. Faster wireless networks may mean that a high-quality video signal can be transmitted, which might lead to networked TVs. A cable modem is one of the places on the network where you can have control capabilities built in and where you might be able to wirelessly control an entertainment network. A cable modem is not a set-top box or cable channel selector. The cable modem’s function is to provide digital services such as Internet access. Most cable companies will let you substitute your own cable modem, although some will not. It’s best to check with your provider if you decide to install your own.
A cable service may offer a variety of set-top boxes, both analog and digital. There is a growing trend to push consumers to digital services as soon as the infrastructure allows. Comcast, for example, will stop showing many movie channels on its analog cable packages, so analog services’ days are probably numbered. Although a small handful of wireless cable boxes are available, no cable company I know of offers them. If you want to incorporate a device like the Motorola SURFboard® Wireless Cable Modem Gateway SBG1000 shown earlier into your entertainment network, you will need to do so yourself. The world of set-top boxes offers a unique opportunity to computer vendors, and everyone from Microsoft (with the Windows CE operating system), to Linux, to Sun with Java wants to penetrate this market. Set-top boxes are computers, and whether they include an embedded real-time operating system, Linux, Windows CE, or something else, it’s clearly a great place to embed intelligent functionality to run a home entertainment network. The next generation of set-top boxes will be computers with storage capabilities. Depending on the components you have in your system, most entertainment networks connect a set-top box either directly to the TV, as a pass through in a home theater arrangement through a surround sound receiver, or as a pass through from a PVR (such as ReplayTV, TiVo, or a computer with those capabilities). The digital Motorola High Definition Cable Receiver DCT5100 (see Figure 14-5) that is attached to the author’s HDTV is a good example of a next-generation set-top box that comes with three USB connections, a smart card interface, and an Ethernet port.
The set-top box arena is one of the most actively contested device categories in the entire entertainment networking area, and with good reason. Whoever controls the set-top market can control the content and capabilities of your system. You should pay particular attention to advances in set-top boxes; there’s a lot at stake in this arena.
You can choose many equipment types as a starting place when you want to wirelessly integrate components into a home entertainment network. Although a device like a wireless surround sound receiver with a built-in cable modem and firewall is a good starting place, if you were actually able to find one, chances are you wouldn’t want it. First, any highly integrated device like that locks you into a specific blend of technologies in any area that is still in flux. More importantly, budgets and your evolving needs will probably limit what you can buy, but thankfully not necessarily what you can accomplish over time. When you are done you still should be able to manage and access music, photos, and movies on your network. So how do you make good choices?
Faced with choices, you should do what smart people and companies have always done: adopt standards. Home entertainment networks are often on the bleeding edge of technology, but you don’t have to be. It’s much smarter to be a little behind the curve on technology. Buying the second or third iteration of a device type once it matures can save you a lot of cost and grief. That buying philosophy would mean that you selected VHS instead of Betamax, DVDs instead of laser disks, and for wireless networking, 802.11g instead of 802.11b. You don’t always choose the best technology, but often you will end up with something that is more useful. The old adage is true: you always can tell who the pioneers were—they are the ones with arrows in their backs.
There has been much discussion about the merits of one 802.11x protocol versus another in this book. The experience for streaming large media files seems to be that 802.11b is adequate for streaming music and small photos, but it is not fast enough for moving large video files around conveniently. The current preference for any system with video capabilities is 802.11g. You should also be wary of any wireless device that claims backward compatibility with an earlier protocol, and test that claim. An access point that is supposedly compatible with 802.11b/g may really be worthwhile only as a 802.11g network and have lackluster performance and range with an earlier 802.11b device.
Integrating new technology to create a hybrid network containing personal computers and consumer electronics is hard enough; if you can limit your compatibility issues you can save yourself time and trouble. Adopt one vendor’s product line based on a review or testing and try to stick with its products. We would like to believe that products from the same vendor should be known and tested to play well together. Another advantage is that any vendor’s products, such as D-Link’s AirPremier AG Tri-Mode Dualband 802.11a/b/g or any other product that offers you “EXTREME-G”, “MEGA-A”, or “ULTIMA-G” (fictional standards) are proprietary and are going to give you something like the speed they advertise only when they are connected to other products from that vendor. Vendors use proprietary techniques to go beyond current standards, techniques that aren’t going to work with other vendors’ products (most likely). So if you are extending the range of this particular access point, you would need to purchase the DWL-G650 wireless repeater because without that unit you can’t get above the normal limit of 54 Mbps in your extended range. The same applies to any NIC (network interface card) that you install in your laptop or desktop (which for this particular series would be D-Link’s DWL-AG650 or DWL-AG530). We chose these specific products just for the sake of illustration; other good choices are available.
Wireless Digital Audio
One of the first wireless projects that people undertake is sharing their music library throughout the house. It’s a good first project because many devices are available and because the demands that the task places on a wireless network are small. Music file sizes are relatively small, which means that even 802.11b devices will work well for this purpose. An MP3 song that is about 3 minutes long will run about 3MB when recorded at a 128-Kbps bit rate. A library of MP3 files of 30GB will contain something like 10,000 songs, or approximately 800 records. That’s a fair-sized collection in anyone’s book. An audio library is a compelling reason to go to the trouble of creating a wireless connection from your LAN to your receiver or TV. So it’s no surprise that among the first wireless devices for home entertainment networks is a group of wireless receivers. The following sections take a look at some of the options you have when assembling an audio system.
Assembling a Wireless Audio System
You have some good choices when you are trying to assemble a wireless audio system. Most people create a music library first, and then look to exploit its existence. Thus a PC may serve as the MP3 repository. One of the obvious choices is to have your PC serve as your entertainment hub. Any PC with a wireless NIC gives you both a wireless network connection and lets you output audio directly from a sound card to a stereo receiver. Most receivers will accept digital output from an advanced sound card such as Creative’s Audigy 2 series or the revolution 7.1 surround sound board from M audio. Outputs from these boards are either through minijacks (like typical small headphones) or through a standard RCA digital connection.
One of the author’s first entertainment network was based around a Gateway Destination PCTV that was in service for about four years. The advantage of a PCTV is that it can directly attach to your entertainment components, serve as a tuner, a PVR, and you can use the computer to control just about any controllable device. With a PCTV, you can manage storage, input and output configuration, and multiple devices. PCs are often open architecture, so as a PCTV gets older you can upgrade components. My Destination went through three versions of the Windows operating system, three video cards, two tuners, and two sound boards before it was retired. The PCTVs of the present come with ever-improving audio standards. For example, the new Intel BTX motherboards have advanced sound capabilities as part of their motherboard. The modern version of this concept is the Windows Media Center PC.
You don’t need a screaming PC to serve your entertainment network’s needs. The truth is that even an old PC will serve well as an audio server. Mostly what you need in a multimedia PC serving up audio files is reasonable I/O to disk and the ability to support higher-end audio and video cards. These are very modest requirements. Computers with no AGP ports are at a disadvantage, but you can still purchase an ATI All-in-Wonder PCI card and have one of the newer Audigy boards work in a PC that is running an operating system as old as Windows 98. So your old PC might make a good choice as an audio file server and wireless connection point, and provide even longer service. Since your PCTV usually needs to be directly connected to your TV and cable, it’s generally centrally located. A PCTV interface with a wireless access point makes wireless connections to other devices easy to create.
Networked audio receivers are certainly an intriguing possibility for starting to build a wireless home entertainment network. They can store and play audio files, give you Internet radio access, and perform other useful audio functions. There aren’t many on the market yet, and the ones that are come with wired Ethernet connections. The HP Wireless Digital Media Receiver ew500 (see Figure 14-6) is one of the first examples of this type of device, and is meant for mass market at a price point of around $300. An example of a higher-end networked receiver is the Onkyo TXNR900 7.1 Digital Audio Receiver, shown in Figure 14-7. The TXNR900 comes with a built-in Linux system to manage the network connection. Included in this receiver is Internet radio with 30 assignable presets. This model requires a separate tuner for AM and FM reception. Although you can add wireless capability to this receiver, you will probably see more choices appearing on the market that are wireless devices straight out of the box.
Both a PCTV and a wireless receiver are typically the kinds of devices that you would use as a central hub in an entertainment network. In the years to come you’ll see more and more wireless entertainment devices, such as wireless speakers, that make both of these components easier to connect wirelessly. However, you don’t need to make the investment in technology that a computer or receiver requires to wirelessly share your music. There are now some simpler ways to do so.
Wireless Audio Devices
Two basic kinds of specialized wireless audio devices have appeared: music servers that store the music locally and output the processed audio signal to a set of speakers or to a receiver; and streaming audio servers that access files stored elsewhere on your network. Music servers are usually wired Ethernet because they are supplying larger quantities of data to the network, whereas streaming audio servers are often wireless devices.
Marantz is one company that sells an audio server in the high-end category. Its DH9300 model comes with an Ethernet connection, which means that you can easily add a wireless capability to it. By contrast, Yamaha’s MusicCAST Digital Audio Music Server (see Figure 14-8), which at $2200 (list) is a little pricey for a model with an 80GB hard drive, already has a wireless function. The MusicCAST is an 802.11b wireless server and can be purchased with a set of clients that can connect wirelessly to the MusicCAST receiver. When you set up the MusicCAST, you can purchase $600 MCX-A10 clients and a set of $120-a-pair MCX-SP19 speakers. The audio client is a complete stereo system that can display the MusicCAST’s content on its LCD screen, connect to and run speakers, accept other audio input, and connect to a network.
The sound and build quality of both manufacturers’ units are as good as you might expect, but for the price and, considering the restricted capabilities of these hi-fi computer wannabees, we would argue for buying or building and then deploying a multimedia PC. Units like the Marantz and Yamaha do look nice and offer an easy way of getting hi-fi sound on your network, but they are really for people who have a high-end hi-fi system and want to have this component match the décor of the other components in the rack.
Any personal computer with a decent audio card can serve as an audio server. A variety of software can be used to serve up audio, including MusicMatch Jukebox, QuickTime, RealOne, WinAmp, Windows Media Player, iTunes, and others. This category of software was last reviewed by PC Magazine in March 2003 and can be found online here. Take a careful look at the new versions of these products before deciding on any recorder/player software, but they are all capable. All of these software players scan your storage devices and build a library of music for you. Additional features provide extras such as sound leveling, balance controls, special indexing and searching, Internet radio access, streaming audio from online sources, and so on. The main thing being added to this class of software at the moment is access to music libraries that let you download music. Media Player 10 will apparently create a marketplace for these different services.
For large entertainment networks with lots of clients (not typically a home entertainment system) you need a higher-end solution: audio servers with streaming server software. The three most widely deployed choices, in order of their deployment, are RealNetworks and its Helix Server, Microsoft’s Windows Media Technologies, and Apple’s QuickTime server. All are good products, but RealNetworks’ server software is the category leader. Microsoft’s server software is capable and a much more economical choice. Web sites serving up audio files such as National Public Radio’s sites will often offer two different audio types. For www.npr.com and associated sites, those two formats are Real and Windows Media. These streaming server technologies also create streaming video feeds. You’ll often see QuickTime offered as a preferred video format on the Web. Luckily, few of us home users will require this level of complexity.
For home networks with modest throughput requirements you can purchase audio servers that are wireless streaming media products. As a class they can be had for as little as $100 up to $250, with the more expensive providing video and faster wireless networking. You have many models to choose from in this category. Early streaming receivers were notoriously finicky to set up and had build problems, but the category seems to be improving. There are a few standouts. Models worth considering include the Netgear MP101 (see Figure 14-9), Creative SoundBlaster Wireless Music, Hauppauge MediaMVP, Slim Devices Squeezebox, the Prismiq MediaPlayer, the D-Link DSM-320, and others. The critical features that you are looking for in this product category is ease of use and installation of the receiver, reliability, and output connections. All of these devices input to your TV and offer an on-screen GUI for simplified music access, and the quality of that software is very valuable when you have a lot of files to manage. Software should be able to search, sort, and find without relying on a PC software player.
NoteDiskless Media Hubs“. This area of technology has seen a lot of new entrants since this article was written, so it’s best to use these reviews as a starting place for any serious purchase.
Audio Files and Formats
Approximately 200 different sound formats are in use, but only a handful have wide usage, most notably MP3 files. MP3 is officially called MPEG-2 Layer-3 (www.iis.fhg.de/amm/techinf/layer3/index.html), and it can store both video and audio information. It’s a compressed format, and can record music at different levels of compression. At 128 Kbps it is claimed that there is little or no noticeable loss of quality; this compression results in sound that is similar (but not the same) as CD quality. You lose quality when you record an analog resource, such as ripping an LP album, but if the sampling frequency is greater than the one used for encoding, no sound quality is lost. Audiophiles with better ears than ours claim that MP3 does remove sound quality. Based on how analog records sound by comparison, we’d have to agree. An MP4 sound format is on the horizon, as is the application of digital rights restrictions, so it remains to be seen how popular the MP3 format will remain over time. All audio software players play MP3 files, as do all of the audio devices mentioned in this chapter.
MP3 is not the only format people use. The venerable WAV file format is Windows’ native audio file format, and is supported by almost all players. WAV files are uncompressed and larger than MP3 files and they take longer to stream wirelessly across a network, but since they don’t need to be uncompressed they are easily decoded and played. Other native formats are AIFF on the Macintosh and the AU format on Sun Solaris.
One up-and-coming format is Ogg Vorbis, an open source compressed audio (and video) format (www.vorbis.com/) that is favored in the Linux community. Ogg is the name given to the Xiph.org’s container for audio, video, and metadata. Vorbis is an audio compression scheme that can be used in Ogg, along with others such as FLAC (flac.sourceforge.net) and Speex (www.speex.org). You don’t see Ogg on many Windows devices yet, but the format is very high quality and is getting very favorable trade press from the audiophile crowd. Ogg has Real Networks as an investor, and the format is used in a number of popular computer games such as Unreal Tournament 2003, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Alchemy, Serious Sam: the Second Encounter, Candy Cruncher and others.
Ogg will be increasingly supported over time. One highly regarded MP3 player that can use Ogg is the Rio Karma. Because many receivers may use Linux as an operating system to avoid expensive OS licensing costs, Ogg should gain further support. Ogg is meant to replace other formats like MP3. If MP3 licensing issues arise due to Frauhofer’s patent for MP3 being pursued, or if the new digital rights management features added to MP3 get too onerous for many users, then the Ogg format will be a serious competitor to MP3. However, keep in mind that you can’t just simply convert MP3 to Ogg without losing sound quality. Both are lossy compression formats, and each works by throwing away a different part of the audio spectrum. At the moment Winamp, foobar2000, CDex, and Goldwave support Ogg on Windows; Whamb on OS X; and XMMS and Zinf (formerly FreeAmp) on Linux/Unix.
The current streaming standards are Windows Media Technologies’ Window Media Audio / Active Streaming Format (ASF) from Microsoft; MP3, used by a variety of streaming products, many with proprietary implementations (such as Liquid Audio); RealSystems’ RealAudio format; and Apple’s QuickTime. When you stream audio you wrap an audio file in a streaming format with an encoder, and decode it at the receiving end. Good streaming systems provide dynamic buffering to compensate for fluctuations in throughput of the streamed bit rate.
Playing Audio Files Across the Network
It is illustrative to consider the standards supported by some of representative digital audio products at the moment:
• Apple iPod: AAC (16 to 320 Kbps), MP3 (32 to 320 Kbps), MP3 VBR, Audible, AIFF, and WAV• Rio Karma: FLAC, WMA, Ogg Vorbis, MP3, and WAV• Yamaha MusicCAST server: MP3 and linear PCM (native CD music format)• SMC WMR-AG EZ-Stream Universal Wireless Multimedia Receiver: MP3• D-Link DSM-320 MediaLounge wireless media player: MP3, WAV, and WMA• Slim Devices Squeezebox: MP3, WMA, AAC, Apple Lossless, Ogg Vorbis, FLAC or uncompressed audio (WAV and AIFF)• Windows Media Player 10: MP3, ASF, WMA, MIDI, AIF, AU, SND, WAV, CDA, and QT content.• RealOne Player: ASF, AU, MP3, AIFF, RA, WAV, and WMA• Apple QuickTime: AIFF, AU, FLC, MIDI, M4A/B/P (iTunes format), QT, and WAV
MP3 is a standard pretty much across the board, particularly for a streaming standard. No other format except WAV files makes sense on Windows-based devices. The advantage of WAV files is that that format is lossless and you can at a later date convert WAV to other emerging formats. With MP3 an 802.11b wireless device is sufficient; when you are streaming WAV files you should opt for a faster standard such as the 802.11g DSM-320 server. For a dedicated PC music server that isn’t streaming wirelessly, you can use any format that your player supports, and all of them support a very wide array of formats (with the exception of the native formats of their competitors’ players).
Once you have decided on your music format and have a music folder or library in place, the next step to creating a wireless music library is to create a network share that can be accessed from your streaming wireless receiver or PCTV setup. To share the folder in Windows, do the following:
1. Right-click the folder and select Sharing and Security to display the Sharing tab of the folder’s Properties dialog box (see Figure 14-10). If you are using XP Home, you may need to turn sharing on for your system if you haven’t done so already. XP Home sets up some default shared folders.
2. Click the Share this folder radio button, and enter a share name in the Share name text box. Your share can be named whatever you wish and does not have to have the same name as the folder in your file system. You could name the share “Audio Library,” for example.
3. For large numbers of users you may want to limit the number of concurrent connections; however, for most home entertainment networks leave the Maximum allowed radio button as is. (The caching option is not useful for a wireless streaming server without local storage.)
4. Click Permissions and add the users or groups who can access your share in the Permissions dialog box. Set the kinds of permissions you will allow, primarily whether you will allow read only or read/edit (change).
5. Click OK and close your share.
If you are in another operating system such as Macintosh or Linux, the procedure will be similar. When you purchase a streaming audio server, make sure that that particular model will support your operating system.
Whatever playback device you use, you will need to connect it to your new music library share. For XP Professional, you use the Add a Network Place Wizard in Network Neighborhood, for example. Once you’ve accessed the share, you can open your media player (Windows Media Player, MusicMatch, RealOne, or some other) and index your music. Each player has the capability to scan disks or folders that you specify and add the audio content it finds to a list it maintains. Any information stored in the Properties sheet of each sound file is also indexed, allowing you to sort by song, artist, by album, by gender, and so forth.
For a streaming device the setup procedure will vary depending on the device’s setup and capabilities. Here’s an outline of how the SMC WMR-AG EZ-Stream Universal Wireless Multimedia Receiver (shown in Figure 14-11) sets up to stream audio files:
1. Insert the CD-ROM that comes with the product into your computer and install the management software on your system.
2. Specify which folders will be shared by the receiver.
3. Plug in the wireless streaming receiver and plug the receiver into your TV and/or audio system.
4. Use the on-screen wizard to set up DHCP or a static IP address on your network. (Note: this server can be used in a wired Ethernet configuration.)
5. Make your selections, set up a play list, and then begin playing audio files.
Wireless Digital Video Transfer
As nice as streaming digital audio is on a home entertainment network, seeing your digital photos and videos on your TV is nicer still. Computer technology adds considerable value to the display of pictures and video content, and high-quality pictures really come alive on a good monitor. Most people think in terms of watching TV or storing recorded shows on their home network, but any digital image can be transferred and displayed with the power of computer software applied to the enterprise.
Digital Image Transfers
Most digital images stored on home computers tend to originate from digital cameras, and are thus stored as JPEGs. Other sources, such as scanners, might store TIFFs to disk. The process of transferring images from these sources to your computer is rarely done wirelessly, although that could change in the future. Most of the digital image capture devices are wired devices, usually with USB or FireWire connections; whereas older devices tended to use SCSI (as do high-end devices). There have been some introductions of wireless technology applied to source transfer, although most wireless devices produced to date have tended to use Bluetooth instead of Wi-Fi.
An example of one digital camera that does offer Wi-Fi capabilities is the Nikon D2H camera. By adding its WT-1A add-on adapter or the WT-1 for Europe and Asia you create an 802.11b connection between this camera and your computer. The D2H can transfer pictures through an infrastructure or ad hoc connection to a computer, with image transmission using FTP software. The WT-1 connects to the D2H by attaching to the tripod thread and draws power from the camera. It also connects to the camera’s USB port. The D2H is a professional digital camera, meant for someone who takes a lot of pictures. The attraction of a Wi-Fi connection to a PC is obvious: it removes file size and storage limitations for an extended shoot.
Although wireless source image transfers are uncommon, displaying stored pictures over a wireless connection is not. All of the streaming media servers that will play audio could in principle display pictures from your computer on your TV, but many of the early models offered music support only. Newer devices include the ability to display photos in a slide show, as the D-Link DSM-320 shown in Figure 14-12 does. You’ll also find devices such as the GoVideo D2730, LiteOn LVD-2010, and the Gateway Connected DVD Player, which are combo DVD player and streaming media players. All these players support JPEG, TIFF, or BMP; the LiteOn, DSM-320, and the HP ew5000 receiver also support PNG. Rarely you will find support for other formats such as JPEG 2000 on the DSM-320.
Depending on resolution and format, most picture file sizes are similar to audio file sizes. This is especially true of compressed formats such as JPEG. Therefore any of the 802.11b wireless receivers should work equally well for displaying pictures in a slide show. However, the actual ability of these devices to display pictures varies considerably. Some of the wireless media receivers’ software gives you valuable features for controlling a slide show, letting you vary the time displayed, stepping forward and backward through images, and offering remote control of the display through their included remotes and so on.
Personal Video Recorders
Personal Video Recorders (PVRs, also called Digital Video Recorders or DVRs) have been available for a few years as an outgrowth of the video capture and TV tuner component market. ATI, Hauppauge, and others have sold TV tuner boards based on chip sets from manufacturers such as Philips, and mated those tuners with graphics boards. The Gateway Destination PCTV series that appeared in the late 1990s offered TV display on a large screen CRT monitor, as well as a rudimentary record function. Early models of the Destination shipped with Windows 98 (first edition) and with STB Video Rage II boards. Later models moved to the ATI All-In-Wonder (AIW) integrated tuner/graphics cards.
PROPRIETARY SOLUTIONS: TIVO AND REPLAYTV
The best known PVR on the market today is the TiVo (www.tivo.com) player, now in its second series, and shown in Figure 14-13. Companies such as Philips, Sony, and Toshiba license the technology and create PVRs with TiVo branding. The first model TiVo shipped in March 1999, the same month that competitor ReplayTV shipped its first model. SonicBlue’s ReplayTV 4000 is another good PVR implementation that differs from TiVo in that it can share recorded programs, as well as provide a commercial skipping feature—features that SonicBlue was forced to defend against litigation from the entertainment industry.
TiVo has the form factor of a set-top box, but is really a Linux computer in disguise. Once people realized that TiVo was a computer, enthusiasts began to open the box and modify it, something the company didn’t actively discourage, although it voided the warranty. The early models offered 20- and 30GB drives, with an hour of video equaling about 1GB of storage (depending on the quality of the video you choose). Among the things you can do with your TiVo is to add larger hard drives (up to two), and even add a networking function. TiVo was meant to be a closed solution, not to be networked, and definitely not to be shared, but even in Series 1 workarounds were developed. A Google search on “TiVo hacks” or “TiVo add-ons” will give you some idea of how large this enthusiast community is and what it is doing.
With TiVo you buy a subscription to the TiVo guide service in addition to purchasing the equipment. We believe that the TiVo interface, shown in Figure 14-13, is one of the very best programs ever created on a computer for non-technical users (we have the religion, pass the clicker!). However, the death of TiVo has been regularly predicted by analysts. Although no competitor has yet captured TiVo’s ability to predict desirable content, manage subscription lists (what they call season passes), and present a coherently organized system of finding content, TiVo has not been able to enter the set-top box market. Cable companies are not willing to pay TiVo’s subscription rates and have gone a different route for programmed TV features like on-demand services.
Both current models of ReplayTV and TiVo are networkable and can be made into wireless devices. Although in theory you can use 802.11b, it is recommended that you use 802.11g devices for better performance. One site known for selling TiVo upgrades is PTVupgrade.com. It sells its TurboNet network cards for Series 1 with 802.11b capability; g is not supported. This upgrade lets you add telnet, FTP, and TiVo Web browsing to this product. The DVRchive Server and Client tools software has been written that can convert the TiVo video storage format to other formats that you can play on your laptop. Another well-known TiVo site is 9th Tee Enterprises (www.9thtee.com) and it sells a wireless Ethernet adapter called the AirNet for Series 1.
With Series 2, TiVo added USB to the system and offers the Home Media Option (HMO; www.tivo-direct.com/tivo-home-media-option1.html). It is on board new systems, but the software also has been downloaded to earlier Series 2 models. You’d expect it to be straightforward to wirelessly network a TiVo so that it can download program updates from the Internet instead of calling through its internal modem. It is not. First you need version 4.0 of the OS, and TiVo is very sensitive to the wireless adapter you use. ExtremeTech.com has an article on the subject of hooking up a wireless connection. The more important problem with TiVo’s networking implementation is that its wireless file sharing is meant to go between TiVo boxes only; TiVo stores video in its proprietary file format. So if you want to play TiVo files on your laptop, or stream them through another device, you will need to use third-party software to access the files and do the conversion.
To wirelessly network a ReplayTV 5500 series is much easier than TiVo because that system already has Ethernet. First you configure a bridge to connect to your wireless access point or wireless router. You may need to use a crossover cable to do so. Then you connect the ReplayTV to the bridge. If you have more than one ReplayTV, each one will require a bridge of its own. ReplayTV’s documentation contains additional details.
If you want to record TV to files that you can move about your network wirelessly, and you don’t need the program guide capabilities of the aforementioned appliances, you are better off creating your own computer-based PVR. Microsoft’s Media Center 2004 (www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/mediacenter/default.asp) has this capability if you want a canned solution. You can purchase computers with this OS from a large number of Microsoft’s OEM partners, in desktop, laptop, and even tablet format.
It’s just as easy to add a tuner/graphics card in a PC and use software to record to standard video formats. The integrated solution is to buy a single board with both tuner and graphics on the same card, with the best-selling vendor in this area being the ATI Radeon-based All-in-Wonder (AIW) cards. Recent AIW cards come with FM radio, and ATI still sells a PCI version of this card.
Hauppauge also sells quality products with either a tuner only or a combination TV/tuner (and sometimes FM radio) combination. Similar products exist for nVidia-based graphics boards, and they work equally as well. When you use a graphics board/tuner combination, you are essentially installing a TV inside your computer. When you use the tuner for channel control you enable a number of nice features that aren’t normally found on TVs, such as channel surfing—the software draws a thumbnail of the TV channels and updates them sequentially. Better yet, because it is PC-based, you can add exactly the wireless capability you need; and these vendors write video in standard file formats such as MP2 so you can play them over a network.
PCTVs that you build yourself require program guides for scheduled recording, and the best of these are Web-based. When you install a Hauppauge WinTV Radio, that product sets up to use TitanTV (www.titantv.com), which is shown in Figure 14-14. This is a free service (ads sponsor the service), and you can sign up for TitanTV whether or not you have a tuner that you can control scheduled recordings with. TitanTV has information about programs, sorts and finds, and is a good solution. ATI’s AIW uses Gemstar Guide Plus (www.gemstartvguide.com/) from the same company that owns TV Guide. Neither of these setups is as easy to work with, intuitive, or as sophisticated as TiVo or ReplayTV, but both are solid implementations.
Probably the best software for a PC-based PVR (and our current choice) is SnapStream’s BeyondTV! (www.snapstream.com). Previously called SnapStream Personal Video Station, BeyondTV! (see Figure 14-15) has the ease of use of a TiVo, a very similar interface, and the ability to control cable boxes in the same manner as a TiVo. Its native program guide in the desktop player isn’t as good as TiVo’s, but SnapStream offers a program guide in its Web interface that lets you set subscriptions, and that implementation is quite good indeed. What makes SnapStream particularly good is that it writes standard MP2 video files, lets you set many video qualities, and has a number of convenience features that no other PVR has, such as program padding (it can add minutes to the beginning and end of recordings), commercial delineation in the video buffer display, and more. MP2 files not only play in the SnapStream player, but will play in almost any multimedia player such as Windows Media Player. All you have to do is share the folder containing your recorded programs located in your profile and any system that can view your share, like the aforementioned SMC wireless media receiver, has network access to that program. That makes streaming video to your entertainment network about as easy as it is going to get.
You’ll find a nice article on homemade DVRs called “Building a Wireless Home Media Network Server” at ExtremeTech.
Video Files and Formats
Fewer digital video file formats are in use than audio formats, which makes it easier to pick a standard file format to use and stream with it. With the exception of proprietary formats like the ones TiVo uses, most video programs opt for standards to ensure interoperability with playback devices. Digital video on Windows uses the AVI file format, which replaced the older Video for Windows (VFW) format. AVI files are played using DirectShow and are stored with either DV Encoder Type 1 or 2. You need an appropriate CODEC to compress and decompress AVI files. CODECs can be software that you add to your system, an operating system component, part of a chip or hardware solution, or some combination. The CODECs you have installed are listed in the Sounds and Multimedia control panel on the Hardware tab. Windows doesn’t come with a DVD CODEC, but when you install a DVD player you get a CODEC that Windows Media Player can make use of. Administrators can also download CODECs from the Microsoft Web site. Among common CODECs are MPEG, Indeo, and Cinepak (for telecommunications).
The first industry-standard video format was MPEG-1, the result of the Moving Picture Experts Group. MPEG-1 is CD-quality video and isn’t used by streaming receivers. MPEG-2 (.MPG files) is the video file format used by DVDs and is what is most commonly written by non-proprietary PVR recorders. You can have 720 by 480 resolution with a high picture quality. To record MPEG-2 onto a CD, you can convert the format to SVCD (SuperVideo CD) with only about 20 minutes work of video content. SVCD is a video CD standard that is meant to be a lower-cost replacement for DVD. The Windows streaming video format is WMF, or Windows Media Format, and it replaces ASF making use of an MPEG-4 encoding scheme. Both Real Video and QuickTime are also streaming video formats. Streaming video formats work by downloading a piece of the video to start playback and fetching more of the file as the buffer is used up.
Let’s look at the video file formats supported by common programs and devices:
• ATI All-in-Wonder: MPEG-2.• SnapStream BeyondTV!: MPEG-2, Windows Media (.WMV files).• D-Link DSM-320: MPEG-1, -2, and -4, Xvid, QuickTime, and AVI.• Windows Media Player: WF and ASF (Windows Media Files), WMV (Windows Media A/V), the native AVI file format, and MPEG, MPG, MPE, M1V, MP2 and MPV2 formats. You can support additional formats if you add a CODEC for its support.• RealOne Player: MPEG, AVI, WMV, and QT.• QuickTime Player: QuickTime Movie (MOV), MPEG-1, -2 and -4, AVI, DV Stream, and others. QuickTime has probably the most extensive file format support in the industry (see www.apple.com/quicktime/products/qt/specifications.html for a complete list).
Few recorders record AVI, opting instead for MPEG or the WMV format. The advantage of the Windows Media format is that its files are smaller than MPEG-2 and of similar quality, and you can stream WMV files over a home network or the Internet. However, WMV requires more computer resources, and for those systems like BeyondTV! that offer time shifting, WMV doesn’t allow it, whereas MPEG-2 does. MPEG-2 is the portable solution because you can record it to a DVD and play it in another computer using player software. However, if you intend to view your recorded video on a DVD player you need to use a third-party application to burn your recorded content. Products that work with MPEG-2 content are Roxio Easy Media Creator 7 for the PC or Toast Titanium 6 for the Macintosh (www.roxio.com), U-Lead’s DVD MovieFactory Studio Suite Deluxe (www.ulead.com/dmf/runme.htm), TMPEnc dvd Author (www.pegasys-inc.com/), and many more.
Integrating Game Consoles into a Wireless Network
Game consoles are for many people what the word “entertainment” in home entertainment networks means. There’s a good reason that people want to add high-speed wireless networking to their game consoles. You can create a multiplayer gaming environment when you use a wireless bridge, which allows for more exciting action in game play. You also can move the controller where you need it.
The three main consoles in use today are the Sony PlayStation 2, the Microsoft Xbox, and the Nintendo GameCube. Of the three, only the Microsoft Xbox has made it easy for you to connect your console with built-in networking with an integrated Ethernet controller. To use the Xbox as a wireless device, you need to purchase the $100 Xbox Wireless Adapter MN-740 from Microsoft (www.microsoft.com/hardware/broadbandnetworking/productdetails.aspx?pid=015). This is an 802.11g device that bridges to your Ethernet network, and it is reported that the MN-740 also is easily installed on a PS2. You’ll also find that the wireless adapter is set up to download software updates when they become available. Xbox lets you connect 16 consoles together.
To add the wireless adapter to Xbox, do the following:
1. Go to the Dashboard and select Update to download the latest software.
2. Attach the wireless adapter to your Xbox.
3. Insert your Xbox Live setup CD and configure your account.
The Xbox Wireless Adapter from Microsoft seems particularly easy to install and use by those who have commented on it.
Other vendors also sell wireless bridges for the PS2 and GameCube game consoles, including LinkSys, D-Link, and SMC. Most of the early devices used the 802.11b.
Here’s how you install a wireless network bridge on a PS2:
1. With the power supply disconnected, remove the expansion cover at the back.
2. Remove the connection cover to reveal the connector for the network adapter.
3. Insert the network adapter and gently tighten the screens.
4. Plug your Ethernet cable into the connector that is under the Network connector label.
You can find complete instructions from Sony at www.us.playstation.com/support.aspx?id=installation/networkadaptor/415013905.html.
There aren’t as many reasons to network a GameCube, with very few games that support online multiplayer action. The installation of a networking function in the GameCube is given on the Nintendo Web site at www.nintendo.com/online/bba_setup.jsp.
A good starting place for reading about wireless game console networking is the article by Dave Salvator called “Unwire Your Game Console”.
A home entertainment network isn’t normally something you go to a store to buy. Most people start with some component like a hi-fi and then add a TV to it, perhaps adding a home computer next. It doesn’t take long before you have numerous devices, some of which may be networked and others of which may not. The desire to view content created on one device on another device is the reason that people try to build home networks. Wireless networking is nearly perfect for sewing together diverse components and solving problems with location and accessibility that are difficult to solve with wired connections.
In this chapter you learned about some of the early wireless devices on the market, some strategies for constructing a home entertainment network, and the kinds of projects that people undertake. You also learned about some of the technical issues that argue for the selection of one device or technology over another one.
A wireless network is part of what could be a strategy of automating other aspects of your home environment. Did you ever want your coffee made for you in the morning automatically? Perhaps not, but who wouldn’t want to save money heating and cooling their house, have better home security, get their lawn sprinkler system to come on at the right times and for the right amounts, and have lights turn on where and when they want them? That’s all part of our next chapter on making a home smart; and wireless networking technology can play a role there too, as you will see.
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