The connected home
1 April 2005 | 0
The days of the PC being separated from other electronics in the home are numbered. You favourite home electronics are starting to talk with other. The embedding of digital architectures in all forms of entertainment devices — from TVs to music systems to game consoles — coupled with the evolution of wired and wireless networking technologies is allowing for convergence between the family PC and the traditional entertainment favourites.
But the path to a truly connected home is not entirely clear: There are barriers for the industry in terms of slow networking speeds and security; and for the users in terms of getting access to the expertise to make the connected home happen.
The fundamental idea behind connecting your PC to other devices in the home should be to get all that great multimedia content (music, pictures, video and games) you have downloaded from the Internet and ripped from your CD and DVD collection to other devices. New emerging wireless networking technologies and older wired ones are beginning to make this happen. In existence since the early 1970s, Ethernet is the industry standard for wired LAN networking. Technology based around the Wi-Fi certification is the wireless great white hope. Bluetooth as a peripheral interconnect technology promises to create a wireless personal area network for the user.
The reason for any networking — whether it’s Ethernet, Bluetooth or Wi-Fi-based — is to share data and Internet access between two or more PCs, or with a games console fitted with a network adapter, or with a TV fitted with a media receiver. As in the case of a computer network in the workplace, the possibilities for a home network are only restricted by the user’s imagination and technical ability.
Wi-Fi in the house
Right now everybody in the industry is talking about Wi-Fi or wireless LAN. Unfortunately, the technology isn’t quite there yet. Wi-Fi with its 802.11b, a- and g standards remains painfully slow compared to the wired alternative. Ethernet has now gone from 100Mbit/s in the home or small office to Gigabit (1000Mbit/s) speed at enterprise level.
In stark contrast, wireless lags behind with 802.11b offering speeds of 11Mbit/s at best and 802.11g promising up to 54Mbit/s. The latter’s equipment can perform as poorly as 22Mbit/s and if you mix b and g equipment together, the speed will be fall down to 11Mbit/s.
Clearly, the speed is not there at the moment to stream DVD-quality video wirelessly from a PC to a TV via a wireless media receiver — that’s the dream. Currently, the technology is more suited to shifting short MPEG video clips only minutes in length. Tony Middleton, a technical specialist with SMC Networks, told us that in demonstrations of his company’s wireless media receiver product, he streamed a four-minute, 45Mbyte MPEG 2 file downloaded from the Internet, from a PC to a TV.
Fine for photos and music
With wireless streaming, the current speeds are fine for shifting still images, compressed digital music and short video clips. But users can forget about full-quality video streaming until Wi-Fi hits higher throughput speeds than those currently available. Gavin Tobin, sales director with networking specialist Ethos Technology says: ‘None of these devices will stream video in full quality. Imagine pushing 4.7Gbyte of DVD footage through at 54Mbit/s. If you do the math, you will see that it is just too slow.’
One thing wireless streaming is good for is sharing music. Imagine that you’ve ripped all of your favourite audio CDs, converted them to MP3 and stored them on your PC’s hard disk. You’d like to listen to all this great music in the living room and your PC is upstairs, so how do you do it? You don’t want to have to move your PC; instead, you could set up a music-streaming device on your wireless network and play back your MP3 files the Hi-Fi in the living room or on any other networked-connected music player in the house. To do this you will need a PC, a wireless router, and wireless cards and access points for each device on your network. You will also need to invest in a music-streaming box such as the Audiotron or the Squeezebox. With these devices, you can playback MP3, Windows Media Audio, and AAC audio files from your PC.
Although still not available in Ireland, Creative has launched the SoundBlaster Wireless Music in the US. The system connects to the receiver on your Hi-Fi and plays music from your PC on it.
The main drawback with this device is that it doesn’t work with the latest 802.11g wireless networking standard but rather the older — and slower — b standard. And while the Creative Soundblaster Wireless Music’s software promises to do a good job as a wireless music server, the music can skip owing to interruptions in the wireless signal. This interference is a common problem with wireless networks. At the root of this problem is the fact that both 802.11b and g — the two fastest wireless networking — run on the 2.4GHz radio frequency and it’s a busy one, as it is also used by Bluetooth, wireless video senders, wireless baby monitors and even microwave ovens. So with all of this traffic, you are bound to get interference and interruptions. Not to mention the fact that some reinforced walls and neighbours that also use Wi-Fi can affect your wireless performance.
On the upside, the device comes bundled with software that will let you convert your PC into a wireless music server. You can also program the software to scan the PC regularly for recently added music.
Wired is faster
The fastest way to the truly connected home comes through wires. Ethernet networking is fast — runs over 100Mbit/s — and most computers and game consoles come with an Ethernet connection. The only thing you have to worry about is hiding the wires. A wired connection allows you to stream rich media from a PC to a TV. The Sony Vaio PCV-RS326 is a desktop PC that acts as a network media streaming device when connected to a wired Ethernet network. It sports a massive 160Gbyte hard disk and DVD Writer that supports both the DVD-RW and DVD+RW formats. With it, a user can record and archive footage from the TV via the built-in analogue tuner on its ATI 9200 graphics card. The most interesting part of the bundle is the separate Roomlink media streamer. This stack can be connected to a wired network via its Ethernet port and be connected to a TV or Hi-Fi through the composite video, s-video, stereo line-out sockets, or an optical digital audio connector on the back of the box. With the Roomlink, MPEG 2 video and ATRAC audio can be streamed to your other home electronics. It’s the TV and video side that sparks the most interest: This streamer communicates back to the PC as well as just receiving data from it. This means that you can watch shows on your TV through it, streamed from the tuner card in the PC over the network, and then press record on the included remote to start recording the TV show onto your hard disk. You can also use the remote to schedule recordings, but you have to enter all the actual time and channel details because there’s no electronic programme guide.
Wireless not all bad
While wired networking may still offer the best solution for sharing bandwidth-hungry digital content between devices, for other practical tasks, wireless has several advantages.
Take Bluetooth technology. It works off the same frequency as Wi-Fi but offers a much shorter range of less than ten metres. It is also much slower, at 700Kbit/s. However, this technology is ideal for connecting an individual user to their personal devices. With Logitech’s Bluetooth-enabled Dinovo Mediapad, you can control the photo, music and movie functions on your desktop computer from up to ten metres away. And if you’ve got a Bluetooth mobile phone, you can read incoming text messages on your computer screen through the wireless connection. According to Peter Bellew, MD with specialist Vbnets, Bluetooth accounts for just 5 per cent of all wireless technologies. He estimates that in ‘three to five years, Bluetooth will be popular especially for use with mobile devices because of its low power consumption.’
According to Bellew, the vast majority of wireless still centres around Wi-Fi ‘where the communication distance is greater and the data throughputs are higher’. He readily admits that the most practical use for Wi-Fi technology in the home is for the sharing of a broadband Internet connection among a number of PCs, game consoles and other wireless peripherals. For PC or peripheral to TV video streaming, he says, ‘we are waiting for a technology called ultra-wideband, which will be embedded in digital TVs and DVD camcorders within 18 months’. The standard, which is being championed by Sony, Nikon and Olympus, will offer gigabit (1000Mbit/s) transfer so there will be no need for wired USB 2.0 or FireWire for sharing content between peripherals and a PC. Bellew goes as far as to say that the technology will ‘revolutionise MP3 streamers and multimedia players’.
Connected home essentials
DSL or wireless broadband — To share high-speed Internet access, Internet radio and online gaming with your connected peripherals.
A wireless router — Eircom now offers a Netopia DSL modem with a Wi-Fi router built into it.
Wireless access adapter — If you want to put a digital device on the network, you’ll need one of these.
Ethernet cables — In case you decide you’d prefer speed over flexibility and decide to go down the wired route.
Ethernet ports or adapters — On the peripherals you want to attach to the wired network.
A friendly IT manager — You may need their help to figure out the IP configuration.
Cool tools for the connected home
Arkon SF121 Wireless FM Transmitter
Play back music from your MP3 portable player, minidisc or CD player on your home Hi-Fi over an FM frequency.
Buffalo Linkstation HD-H120LAN Network Storage Centre
Brings network assisted storage into the home. With it, your family can back up their content from their home networked PCs, use the device as a print server to a standard inkjet printer and share content via the Web with a FTP server.
Sony AIBO ERS-7
Connect a cyber dog to your home network and control it via the Wi-Fi connection. You can even transmit digital images of what this pet sees back to your networked computers.
HP Deskjet 5850
Connect five PCs to this printer via Wi-Fi and print off monochrome documents and colour presentations.
Sony Clie PEG-UX50
Handheld computer with built-in Wi-Fi, enabling it to access high-speed wireless Internet services at home. It’s also got Bluetooth for linking it to mobile phones.
Linksys Wireless-B Game Adapter
Gives wireless facilities to any games console with an Ethernet port, such as an Xbox. You can then link it to a broadband connection or another console without cables.
DSL broadband modem with a built-in router and 802.11g wireless facilities for sharing it with wireless devices.
Linksys WMA11B Wireless-B Media Adapter
Look at your digital pictures on your TV screen — and listen to your MP3 music in rich stereo at the same time.
Streams and plays MP3s and Windows Media files from all of your networked PCs and Internet radio directly to your home stereo. It’s compatible with both 802.11b and 802.11g wireless networks.
Stream audio and still images via your AV equipment’s phono jacks or S-video inputs. So now you can send all this content from your PC to a TV or an audio system downstairs from your PC upstairs.
Concord Eye-Q Go Wireless
Bluetooth-enabled 2Megapixel digital camera that allows you to take a picture and send it to a Bluetooth-compatible mobile phone.
Nokia Image Viewer SU-2
Send photo images from a Nokia mobile phone to a picture frame for display, rotation and slideshow effects, via infra-red.
Packard Bell Net2Plug
This is home networking over electricity cables and it’s set for launch before May. The company says it also plans to launch a set of SD cards for the Net2Plug system. These will enable the powerline networking system to connect to a Wi-Fi network. These card-based adapters should be available in Ireland before Christmas.
Yamaha MCX 1000 MusicCast Server
The size of a home cinema receiver, the MusicCast server will rip music from old LPs and cassettes and CDs. You can stream music to the MusicCast clients with matching speakers, to other rooms in your home via a wired or wireless network over Ethernet or 802.11b Wi-Fi.
Ethos Technology 01 401 1064 (For Linksys and Turtlebeach)
Kube Solutions 045 437 877 (For Nokia Image Viewer)
Harvey Normans 01 890 9900 (For Netgear)
Sony 01 413 1700
Buffalo 061 708027
Esat BT www.iol.ie/products
AMS Technology 065 684 6111 (For SMC Networks)
Compustore 01 450 6255 (For Packard Bell Net2Plug)
Sherwoods 051 872 622 * System Video 01 6200 900 (For the Yamaha MusicCast MCX 1000)