Parks Associates Blog

Friday, May 18, 2007

Curses! Foiled again!

A Sad Story about a Boy, His Media Center, and the Digital Media Adapter that Almost Could

In an earlier blog, I described my current Media Center set-up, where we've got it conveniently located near a coax outlet, so it's receiving and recording the local channels from our FiOS service. However, we just don't use it to watch TV while in the house, since it's located in our home office. However, I really do like the free Orb Networks software that's loaded on the PC, and I've used the Media Center as my "place-shifting" server when I'm traveling. In fact, we enjoyed watching football (streamed to my laptop using Wi-Fi connections) last fall when we were in Germany for the CONNECTIONS Europe event! And, we've gone as far as to bring the laptop to bed with us and use Orb to watch the recorded shows there. Honestly, it's not a bad experience, especially using the powerline bridges that provide a nice, steady signal.

Obviously, however, this is a stop-gap measure, and it definitely has its frustrations. My laptop, for example, feels the need to download all kinds of security updates and run virus scans every time it's booted. Yeah, I'm sure I could select some options to space those security features out a bit, but security's important, right? Between this activity and my laptop's ever-annoying habit of freezing occasionally, it'll sometimes be a good half-hour to go from cold laptop to watching a program. Okay, okay, I know that a five-year old laptop probably should be replaced any day now, but it continues to work - and work well - well, when it's working, that is!

With the latest media adapters on display at this year's Consumer Electronics Show, I got excited by the possibility of eliminating the laptop from our TV-viewing experience altogether. I finally made the plunge and got a NETGEAR Digital Entertainer HD. I was pretty excited trying it out. And, up until the last minute, when I got that pit-of-my-stomach-realization-that-it-wasn't-going-to-work-how-I-wanted-it-to, the experience really was a good one.

So, first the good news: home networking's come a long way, baby! The out-of-the-box experience really was great. The design of the NETGEAR product is nice - quite slim - and it fit perfectly in a space underneath the television. The TV is older, so I had to make the connections with composite cables - red, yellow, and white. But it was easy! Now, I was originally going to use my HomePlug bridges to connect the device to the router until I remembered that this product uses another networking standard. So, no joy there.

However, the Wi-Fi connection at home is excellent, and the Entertainer HD made a good link. The only slight bug I experienced with establishing the wireless connection was taking several tries to enter in a ten-digit WEP key, being rejected several times, and then realizing that setting the Entertainer for 64-bit encryption was necessary for it to accept my key. I wonder if the average person could have figured this out.

Okay, so I've got the Entertainer HD connected, configured, and ready to go. My next fear was how difficult establishing file sharing was going to be between the Media Center and the adapter. This turned out to be quite easy, actually. NETGEAR includes a CD that gets installed on the computer. It then walks you through a relatively simple wizard to allow you to determine which media folders get shared. As they say, easy, breezy, lemon squeezie!

The Entertainer HD needed to compile all of the thousands of media files, which took a half hour. A word to the wise - don't get impatient and try to use the device before it's completed its initial scan. In my anxiousness to crank it up, I started pushing buttons too early, and the Entertainer began its scan anew. Men, just walk away from the unit. Fix dinner. Take the kid outside to get the mail. Talk to your wife; ask her how her day was. (I did all three things).

Now, the moment of truth! Could I watch my recorded Media Center TV programs on the bedroom TV?

Well, I got access to 6,000 music files. Saw a couple of photo slideshows. Connected to YouTube and saw the greatest soccer goals of all time (scintilating). Got my weather update. Even saw a few .wmv video files that had been stored on the Media Center. Watched them in all their grainy glory…

… But no TV.

Nada.

Zip.

Zilch.

Guess what? At the last minute, defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory. It was like Chicago 2003 and Steve Bartman all over again. The Cubs were going to their first World Series since 1945, and some bonehead ruins it for millions of suffering fans everywhere! But, in the case of this digital home dream unrealized, it was ... drum roll, please ....

Non-supported TV tuners in my Dell Media Center PC! NETGEAR currently lists 13 supported TV tuners, but mine aren't in there. So, I've got plenty of TV shows sitting on the Media Center in a Microsoft Recorded TV format that isn't viewable on an Entertainer HD that only accepts .wmv, .avi, and a few other formats. I frantically did some searches last night, seeing if there was any way to convert the Recorded TV formats, but I didn't find anything.

It was a crushing blow to my ego, and I was sorely disappointed. It was particularly frustrating, since much about the installation and configuration had gone right. It seems that we’re still at a point in which assuring consumers that products and media content actually work together is still dicey! The Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) has come a long way in addressing some major interoperability issues, and that was a key takeaway from our recent CONNECTIONS™ conference a couple of weeks ago. I hosted a panel called "Nuts and Bolts," where we discussed the inner workings of the connected home and digital media - from storage to DRM to interoperability between devices and media formats. What was clear from the panelists was the DLNA has really set the stage for some basic agreement about greater interconnectivity between devices, applications, and content. However, the really hard work of figuring out interoperable DRM (or no DRM) plus the interaction between the myriad of media codecs and formats is incredibly challenging and an ongoing task.

My frustrations really lie in the fact that there was no warning that a TV tuner was going to be the root cause of my problem, and it leads to me to wonder how we as an industry are going to convince consumers that we can take their digital media experiences and make them as seamless as possible across devices. What sort of interoperability assurances are going to convince consumers that they won't get left bitterly disappointed if – at the moment of truth - the one bug in the system that renders a solution useless.

We've still got work to do, and hopefully I can talk of more positive digital lifestyles experiences in the next few months (and hopefully by the next CONNECTIONS). In the meantime, I think that Robert Frost best summarizes the situation in which we find ourselves much more poetically than I ever could (from "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"):

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

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