After decades of hype, the long-promised convergence of PCs and consumer electronics has arrived. What will the home of the not-too-distant future look like? You'll still have your PCs and your wireless LAN, but new devices will connect your more-traditional PC to the big-screen TV in the living room and the surround-sound stereo upstairs.
"The home PC will evolve from a processing device to much more of an entertainment and networking hub," says Dominic Ainscough, senior analyst for The Yankee Group.
Yankee projects that, by 2007, some 18.5 million households--or about 1 out of 5--will own digital media receivers (like the Roku HD 1000 pictured on our cover) that connect their PCs to their home entertainment systems.
New game machines will add features like the ability to record TV shows and to handle video and audio. And digital set-top boxes designed to show video on demand and play streaming media will also vie for your dollars, thanks in part to big pushes by Intel and Microsoft to gain a foothold atop the boob tube.
"Consumers are reluctant to add yet another black box to their entertainment centers," says Kurt Scherf, VP of research for Parks Associates in Dallas, "but putting a DVD player, a disc burner, and a [digital] video recorder in one box is pretty compelling."
King of All Media
The keys to the PC's media domination will be new ways of handling multimedia data and moving it quickly between devices.
One technology likely to emerge by 2006 is UltraWideBand. Also known as IEEE 802.15a, UWB is a wireless technology that can blast out data at 100 mbps over distances of up to 10 feet.
UWB would be perfect for moving huge HDTV images between a media center and a TV set, says Parks Associates' Scherf. It could also replace USB 2.0 and FireWire cables for transferring images from digital camcorders to PCs.
"It requires a great deal of overhead to get HDTV packets to the right place at the right time," he adds. "Overwhelming speed is one way to guarantee quality of service."
In the next five years, the CPU's ability to handle multimedia will increase tenfold, notes Microprocessor Report's Peter Glaskowsky. "Real-time HDTV-encoding would be something the CPU could do casually," he says. That should pave the way for affordable HDTV camcorders and hi-def home-movie editing.
Couch potatoes will make a gradual transition to high-definition television, though not as quickly as once predicted. Currently, about a third of TV stations offer HDTV broadcasts, though only 4 percent of U.S. TV sets are able to display them, according to The NPD Group. The FCC has mandated that all new TVs be able to receive HDTV broadcasts by July 2007.
One barrier to digital TV has been the challenge of protecting digital content from file swappers. In November the FCC approved a plan that would require digital signals to contain a "broadcast flag"--code that allows broadcasts to be shared inside a home network but prevents their distribution on the Net. Critics fear such code may prevent consumers from burning copies of shows to a DVD--a form of copying currently allowed by law.
Assuming that consumers are able to record HDTV, they'll face still another difficulty. The next home video standard--High-Definition DVD--really consists of two incompatible standards. Both the Advanced Optical Disc format, backed by NEC and Toshiba, and Sony's competing Blu-ray format use blue lasers to pack more much more data on to discs than today's DVDs. AOD can store up to 20GB on each side of a single-layer disc. Blu-ray discs hold up to 27GB of data per side. Both formats require new players, which (naturally) can't play discs produced in the other format. Who will win this particular format war? Stay tuned.
Do-It-All Boxes and Home Broadcasting
In 2004 non-PC boxes, like the one shown here (see review), will further challenge media-savvy PCs. For example, Sony's networkable PSX--merging the PlayStation 2 game console, a TiVo-like video recorder, and a DVD player/recorder--should be hitting Japanese stores about now; Sony has not revealed U.S. plans. But a company called Ucentric says it will provide software to Samsung for a digital media hub that can "broadcast" stored content to TVs and stereos throughout the home by various means, including via ethernet cable or existing cable TV or phone-line wiring. That convenience could expand networking's appeal beyond early adopters with their spools of Cat5 ethernet cable. And by mid-2004, the IEEE should finalize the 802.11e standard to ensure "quality of service" for the smooth wireless streaming of audio and video content.