HTPCs: A Victim of Evolution?

HTPCs: A Victim of Evolution?

Two new classes of devices threaten to make the Home Theater PC obsolete. Has the HTPC party ended before it even began, or will competing devices be crippled over fears of copyright infringement?

The Evolving HTPC

Home Theater PCs (HTPCs) were poised to be the next must-have toy for technophiles. The idea was to have a single component to store and play your entire digital library of music, movies, and photos. The concept was nothing new. For several years, computers have been edging out TVs, stereos, and DVD players as the entertainment appliance of choice for college students confined to cramped dorm rooms. But the plummeting cost of high capacity hard drives and TV tuner cards, along with the ever-shrinking form factor size, led many average consumers to consider moving their PC from their desk to the den or living room.

Those consumers who made the leap soon realized that the reality didnít quite live up to the fantasy. Users with vast MP3 collections, for example, quickly noticed that compressed music doesnít sound so hot coming through full-size speakers. Getting it to sound right would mean countless hours of re-ripping CDís (assuming they owned them in the first place) to their hard drive using a lossless audio codec (such as FLAC or Apple Lossless), which in turn made for significantly larger file sizes. An albumís worth of material now took up 500MB instead of 50MB.

DVD content, on the other hand, could be compressed down to about 1GB/hour of material using a codec like DIVX and would still look fine on most televisions. The prospect of having a video jukebox similar to what music lovers had been enjoying for years was very enticing.

Enter: High Definition Television (HDTV). Consumers who sprang for the big-screen experience encountered their own version of the MP3 phenomenon. Plagued with fuzzy image quality, compression artifacts, and washed-out colors, the DVD mediaís inherent limitations suddenly materialized when blown up on a 40-inch+ screen.

PVRs and STBs

Using an HTPC as a personal video recorder (PVR) also lost much of its allure. Once consumers had their first taste of HD programming, standard definition TV looked appalling by comparison. Users could install expensive HDTV tuner cards, but the massive storage requirements HD demands would quickly clog even the largest of hard drives. Furthermore, users that had to go through a set-top box (STB) to receive HD or even SD programming found themselves limited to viewing and recording only one program at a time.

Has the death knell of HTPC begun to sound even before the concept has taken off? Hardly. Itís just starting to look a bit different. Two distinct trends are currently emerging, each heralded by a new class of device.

First is the new generation of set-top box/PVR combinations being rolled out by cable and satellite companies. Scientific-Atlantaís Explorer 8000HD Home Entertainment Server, available in many markets from Time-Warner Cable, includes either an 80 or 160 gigabyte hard drive, as well as a pair of tuners to simultaneously record two programs at once. The 8000HD also features an external SATA (eSATA) port for adding an additional hard drive (this port is sometimes deactivated, however). Beyond expanded recording capacity, this also provides a method for exporting recorded content to another device (e.g. a computer) and for importing content to a home theater. Granted, current copy protection schemes prevent users from enjoying this capability right out of the gate, but recent history has shown us that it is only a matter of time before some enterprising individual(s) figures out a work-around.

These STB/PVR combos often carry one or more USB ports, although generally they are not enabled. Once they are, however, the potential capabilities of the device begin to open up even further. As the 8000HD Home Entertainment Serverís name suggests, the potential to store and view other entertainment media, such as music and photos, might not be too far away. Taking all the features together, these STB/PVR combos begin to look a lot like stripped-down HTPCs.

Even only taking into consideration the present capabilities of STB/PVRís, these devices offer significant advantages for recording and watching HDTV and SDTV programming over stand-alone HTPCís. First, they are incredibly easy to use. With interactive programming guides, dual HD tuner capabilities, and a simple user interface, even the most extreme technophobe can get the hang of it with minimal difficulty. The second advantage that STB/PVRís have over HTPCís is the significantly lower financial investment required. Cable providers and some satellite providers rent the boxes for as little as $8-20 per month. Compared with HTPCís that cost anywhere from $800-$2000 on up, STB/PVRís are exponentially more attractive to consumers on a limited budget. Also, content providers that do rent boxes will generally let users upgrade for free when new capabilities and technologies are introduced.

As always, there are trade-offs. As mentioned above, current models are significantly less versatile than HTPCís, but they do a substantially better job of handling HD content, particularly for consumers interested in receiving HD content beyond what is available from over-the-air (OTA) broadcast. However, Iím willing to bet that consumers will see a marked increase in the functionality of STB/PVRís in the near future.

Digital Content Streamers

Devices with the ability to stream content over a home network comprise the second category of devices. They basically come in two flavors: dedicated media streamers, such as D-Linkís MediaLounge series and Netgearís Digital Entertainer HD, and multi-function devices with the ability to stream, such as Microsoftís XBOX 360. Rather than eliminating the need for a computer all together, these boxes act as a bridge between the PC and the entertainment system. Often, manufacturers design them to take advantage of special features available through technologies such as Intelís Viiv and Microsoftís Media Center OS.

These streamers present several benefits over a dedicated HTPC. Since it operates over a network (either Wireless G or Ethernet), owners no longer need to keep their PC in close proximity to the viewing area. Leaving the computer in another room, where it is out of earshot and out of sight, eliminates concerns over chassis noise and increases the all-important ďSpousal Acceptance Factor.Ē

Media streamers also allow users to utilize their existing PCs as a media server instead of buying a new one to serve as a dedicated HTPC. Entertainment buffs can further extend their media serverís capabilities by adding additional streamers to TVs and stereos elsewhere in the dwelling.

Manufacturers currently recommend using a wired connection for streaming HD programs, but once the IEEE finally agrees on a standard for 802.11n, the increased bandwidth should be adequate for streaming such content wirelessly.

Unfortunately, the biggest obstacle standing in the way of media streamers and STB/PVRís replacing traditional HTPCs is, was, and continues to be digital piracy. Hardware and software manufacturers tend to refer to it as Digital Rights Management (or DRM, which generally involves individual license keys), while manufacturers of home theater components generally refer to it (somewhat less ambiguously) as High-bandwidth Digital Copy Protection (or HDCP, which relies on embedded software and hardware protocols). Whatever the nomenclature, manufacturers take it very seriously, either because of direct financial interest in deterring piracy (as is the case with Sony, who owns Columbia Pictures and MGM, and Microsoft, who has a partnership with NBC, which shares the same corporate parent as Universal Pictures and Bravo), or because of the threat of lawsuits from those who do.

This would seem to tilt the balance in favor of HTPCís, due to their ability to handle multiple file formats without interference by a third party program or hardware protocol. However, I predict that the future of content protection will evolve in one of two ways. Either media conglomerates and manufacturers will settle on some as-yet-undisclosed universal anti-piracy scheme (donít hold your breath), or the interested parties will consistently, yet gradually, by technological means, tighten the restrictions on digital content transfer protocols. The day may come where content purchased from a subsidiary of Sony can only be played on hardware manufactured by Sony.

Consumers wonít stand for it, you say? Itís already happened. As of February 2006, music fans had already purchased over 1 billion tracks licensed and sold through Appleís iTunes service - tracks that can only be played without restriction on devices manufactured by Apple (although, to be fair, these restrictions come at the behest of the record companies, not Apple).

So, is digital convergence dead? No, the ďone box, one wireĒ dream continues to entice. However, for the average consumer, several kinks still wait to be ironed out. In the meantime, STB/PVRís and media streamers go a long way in filling some of the gaps.


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