Converging in the lounge room

Can all those bits and pieces of electrical gear go into one box?
 
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  • Updated:12 Jun 2008
 

01 .Convergence

cartoon man and house

In brief

  • Convergence refers to the combining of a number of products – such as a CD player, DVD recorder and set-top-box – into one device.
  • The device can be networked so sound, video and data can be sent around the house. Browse our section on Networking for more comprehensive information on how to do this.
  • Set-up needs to be easier, costs lower and rights issues resolved.

Please note: this information was current as of June 2008 but is still a useful guide to today's market.


The media centre

In the world of home entertainment, convergence means the combination of many products into a single device often called a 'media centre'. This is a computer that can:

  • play and record music and video.
  • play and record digital TV.
  • connect to the internet.
  • send music, video and data to various rooms in your house simultaneously.

In this article we’re looking at the relatively cheap option of using one system to manage sound and video, along with internet and computer gaming throughout your house. However, there's also systems designed to manage entertainment in a number of rooms, plus your home’s security and heating/cooling systems, but they tend to start at around $20,000.

However, centralised entertainment is not as easy as it sounds yet:
  • Combining all your separate components – such as DVD recorder and digital set-top-box – into one box requires a more powerful central processing unit (CPU).
  • Connections may be limited.
  • The quality of the output may not be as good as individual dedicated high end components.
  • Media centre computers can be expensive compared with normal home entertainment equipment.
  • If you want to put the computer in a room other than where you’re listening or watching TV, you’ll need more gear to do it.

DIY

You can build your own home entertainment system based on a conventional computer, but you’re going to need quite a bit of technical know-how to buy the right components and assemble it. One for the buffs really.

Ultimately, consumers will decide whether or not we have a one-box future.

CHOICE verdict

The signs are promising but some changes are required:

  • Setting up the devices needs to be a lot easier.
  • Legal and moral rights issues need to be solved. Who wants a CD that will play only in some players and not in a computer without compromising its security?
  • Pricing models need to improve. Would you buy a movie download that you can only watch for one day before it self destructs, when hiring the same movie on DVD – with extra features – for a few days costs the same?

Setting up the devices needs to be a lot easier.

 
 

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Pros

  • Simplicity — One box, one remote and a relatively consistent set of menus for playing, recording and managing both your music and video.
  • Reduce clutter — The ability to play computer games or access the internet while watching TV in another room, all controlled by the same box, may save space as well as being convenient.
  • Instant access — Having a connection to the internet lets you manage email and other communications from your lounge room, as well as connecting to web sites when they’re mentioned on TV shows.
  • Internet multimedia — As video becomes more available online, the convenience of being able to download a movie and watch it instantly may be tempting, but you’ll need a broadband internet connection to make it work.
  • Easy upgrades — It’s possible to upgrade individual components without buying a completely new system. You can put in the latest DVD drive or add a bigger hard disc (as long as it’s compatible with the rest of the system) at relatively low cost. Software upgrades may also increase the system’s efficiency or even add new functions. Software upgrades may also increase the system’s efficiency or even add new functions.

Cons

  • Cost — A media centre PC is likely to cost around $3,000. If you purchased a home theatre system instead, with a DVD recorder as an extra ($2,000), — and a set-top-box/HDD ($400), you’re still ahead and that includes a set of speakers, but it means no internet functionality.
  • Extra connections — If you want to connect to a TV in another room without wires you’ll need a device to send the signal and a receiver at the TV which can also send back infrared signals from your remote so the PC can change channels for you, which is an extra $100 or more.
  • Cost and quality — Using wires to connect your speakers and TV to the PC can be expensive if your PC is located in another room. Also, long distances may mean reduced image or sound quality.
  • Output types — Some media PCs are limited to either a digital output connection for video (these are called DVI or HDMI and should be clearly labelled on the device); or an analogue s-video connection, which isn’t quite good enough quality for high definition plasma and LCD screens. There are some that come with analogue component connections which are better quality than s-video, but you’ll need to check. This is important if you want the best quality image possible from your system and to make sure you get the best match between your TV and media PC.
  • Noise — Media PCs are normally bigger than most home entertainment components and can be noisy. Generally the more expensive ones will have fewer fans and quieter components.
  • Space — Computers generate a lot of heat and need plenty of space to allow air to flow around them.
  • Keyboard — To be fully in control you’ll have to resort to using a keyboard on occasion, which may reduce the convenience of having only one remote to control the main PC.
  • Maintenance — Like any computer, it will need maintenance (managing upgrades to the operating system, doing the occasional hard disc clean up and so on) plus virus and firewall protection to keep you free of viruses and other internet nasties.
  • Set-up — Wireless networks are far from easy to set up and manage if you’re not very computer savvy.

03.Balancing copyright protection and your rights

 

Computer-based home entertainment products present some real problems for media producers and consumers.

Digital copyright protection

Some copyright owners (mainly large corporations) have complained that digitisation has made their product easy to copy and distribute. Some have begun to use various technical means to try and limit what they see as theft.

Unfortunately, the new technical limitations have reduced the usefulness of some of their products and even rendered them unusable in some situations.

For example, some copy protected music CDs:

  • Will play in a DVD player, but not in a media centre PC’s DVD drive.
  • Cannot be copied and stored on the hard disc, to enable you to play different CDs in separate rooms.
  • Fail to work in some car CD players.

Invasive software – the Sony example

Sony was widely condemned for introducing software on some of its CDs sold around 2005 that can compromise the security of the computer you play it on if you’re connected to the internet.

The hidden software installs itself without the user’s knowledge or consent, highlighting just how vulnerable consumers are in this digital marketplace.

Self destruct mechanisms

Downloading video from the internet on a pay-per-view basis may be a good idea in principle. Currently, however, a system such as BigPond Movies requires you to download extra software to make sure the movie file will self destruct after a set time.

This set-up process can be time consuming, as well as being more complicated and not significantly cheaper than taking a trip up to the local video store.

Obviously once you’re over the set-up hurdle the process is simpler and quicker, but the cost seems hard to justify.