Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Taking Internet video to the TV

Internet video has really hit the mainstream in the last couple of years. Whether it is the regular “legal” avenues like Youtube ( or P2P networks like bittorrent, there is a vast plethora of content to be found. The challenge has always been on how to bring it into the living room, as most people are not that comfortable watching long form video on their computers. They would much rather sit on their sofas or lie on their beds to watch the latest blockbuster.

Over the years, a lot of effort has gone in to solve this “last-metre” problem. A few notable attempts at solving this are

Apple TV : is a small book sized device that connects to your TV. It can also connect to your network and download movies from your Itunes library on your computer. It provides the ability to purchase movies and TV shows from the Itunes store. As with all Apple products, the process works flawlessly. The catch as always is in the lack of flexibility. It can only play the type of content that Apple allows, which limits its utility. The vast majority of Internet video is encoded in the AVI/XVID format which the Apple TV cannot play. In addition, since the Apple TV lacks a DVD drive, you will need a separate DVD player. The Apple TV is also expensive at over 200 dollars, and is not available in India.

Game Consoles (PS3/XBOX 360) : In addition to being awesome game consoles, both the PS3 and XBOX 360 can also serve as media players. They can play quite a range of video files including most of the common formats found on the Internet. In addition, they have their own video stores where you can pay and download movies and TV shows. If you’re a gamer and already have these consoles, this is the way to go, especially as you get the ability to play games and watch DVD’s on the same device (in the case of PS3, you also get a Blueray drive). However, they are limited in their ability to browse sites like youtube.

Media center extenders: A number of companies (Linksys, D-Link) have launched media center extender products. These connect to your home network (wired or wireless) and can play the video files stored on your computer. Typically this requires some software to be installed on your computer, though Vista has the media sharing feature built in. These have received mixed reviews, the most common complaint is the slow response time.

WD TV: This is a product that was launched in late 2008 and has got very positive reviews. It works like a media center extender without the network capability. You copy the video files to a USB device (pen drive or hard disk) and plug it into the device. The device will scan and play back the file. This approach removes the weakest link of the media center extenders which is the network. The other reason why this has been very successful is the support for virtually every kind of video file (except the copy-protected ones). The downside is that you need to buy an additional USB device and have to spend the effort to copy the files that you want to watch to the device. So, it is not that great for impulse viewing. The lack of any kind of network access is also a negative, as you cannot watch video from any of the online sites like youtube.

Despite all these choices, the best option still remains the Personal Computer. It provides the widest compatibility and support, playing back virtually every form of media. The challenge is to bring the personal computer to the TV and remove the parts that don’t fit in the living room space. Microsoft has done a lot of work on their Media Center software, to the point where the computer can be controlled using just the remote, but until now the hardware has lagged. The average desktop PC is too clunky and noisy to fit in the living room. However, many companies are introducing Home Theater PC’s (HTPC), which are very sleek and do not look out of place in the living room.

The human interface challenge still remains. Though the Media Centre functions can be controlled with a remote, there will still be occasions where you will need to go back to a keyboard and mouse. Having a regular keyboard + mouse in the living room is a no-no for most people. Logitech has the excellent diNovo, but it is an extremely expensive solution. A more elegant solution may be a software based, running on a smartphone that connects to the PC using Bluetooth. 

The company that can package all of this together into an integrated solution can make a lot of money. I’ve seen some movement towards this by companies like Acer (Acer Revo) and Asus (EEE Box)

This has been an area of much interest for me, mainly because my TV viewing mostly consists of downloaded TV shows (though these are available on some channels, they are aired much later and not in a widescreen ratio). I’ve hesitated in adopting any of the solutions because the area is very immature and the products are not available in India. I do employ a variant of the PC solution, sometimes connecting my laptop to the TV via HDMI. I also use a program called BlueMaemo on my N800 to control the laptop remotely. It’s not the most elegant solution but works for now.

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