The Insane World of Home Electronics 2: Media Distribution

The Insane World of Home Electronics 2: Media DistributionLast week we chatted about home automation. This week we move on to home media distribution.

On top of the automation projects in my home I mentioned last week, I’ve also centralized my two TiVos and can watch time-shifted programming throughout the house. In addition, I surrounded my home with eight security cameras that broadcast to all home TVs as well as to the Internet. (That way I can watch my pets while I travel, and were I to be robbed, I could watch that as well in real time — my own personal reality TV.) The very real value of this was reaffirmed this month when my neighbor’s new truck was stolen out of his driveway and then stripped.

Video Servers: The Next Big Thing?

The proliferation of video servers was amazing at the EHX show, as was the cost of some of these devices. The norm seemed to be about what PCs sold for in the early 1980s — $2,000 and up — and you certainly could see strong margins even if you couldn’t see strong volumes at these prices. I really struggled to understand why you’d want to spend that kind of money to centralize and automate your DVD collection given that DVD players, and good ones at that, are selling well under $100 now. One server is the Escient Fireball E-120, which has a 120 GB drive and sells for $2,600.

This was the same week that Gateway announced its new low-end Media Center PC for $799. As far as I can tell, this will do as much or more than most of the video servers if you option it up with a large external or internal drive.

Media Center PCs were all over the floor. One company, nMedia PC, was showing a really cool bare-bones product you could build yourself that looked a lot like the $4,000 systems on the floor. The kit is around $260, and bare-bones PCs don’t have drives, memory, processors, fans, or an OS.

Nobu — we spoke of them last week as well — was showcasing a Windows-based Media Server at over twice the price of the Gateway, but still way less than the proprietary offerings.

One interesting aspect of the show was that there were Xbox game systems all over the place being used to demonstrate AV systems costing tens of thousands of dollars. Halo 2 was the preferred game and, given that the Xbox is now a media extender in and of itself; the price difference really drove home the impact Microsoft is likely to have on this industry.

It also, once again, caused me to question why the extenders were being priced $100 over what someone would likely be willing to pay for them. Someone must like seeing stacks of unsold products in stores. Here is a suggestion: Buy a refurbished XBox for $100, add the Media Extender package for about $80, and you basically have a media extender that plays video games for about half the price of one that doesn’t.

Many of the proprietary products looked like they needed a Ph.D. to install and a several-week course to run. One product that didn’t was Zon. This product had been designed at the same time as the iPod and has a very similar industrial design. It is also audio only, making it kind of like an iPod for your house. It is easy to install and use and one of the coolest looking products at the show. Not inexpensive, though: Crutchfield has a two-room kit, including speakers, for $4,000, and you still have to install it.

Of course, you could buy the Gateway Media Center mentioned above and four Linksys media extenders (covering 5 rooms) for about half that — and you’d be able to do video as well. But it wouldn’t be built in, and that suggests a market opportunity that is unmet as yet by the Media Center offering.

You may recall that I said that even though Sony had been first with the media hub concept, they hadn’t done much with it — first Apple borrowed it, then Microsoft executed on it. Well, the situation has changed. Sony just launched in Japan the closest thing to a true media hub from the three vendors. It’s called the Vaio Type X, and it has seven TV tuners, a Terabyte of storage, and costs $4,800. Sony is clearly putting this market on notice that it wants to lead again.

A Future of Price Drops

Most of this stuff was way too expensive, from motorized frames that hide your plasma display from view costing up to $7,000, to home theater recliners costing $4,000 per seat. I’ve found a source that sells similar products for $500 a seat. Shopping this stuff can really pay off.

I ran into a startup that seems to have a platform that could move Media Center-like products down in price to where DVD players are today. Just as Portal Player is the heart of the iPod and other MP3 players, this new company, called Geni Media Solutions, could be the heart of the next-generation of multimedia products. They are finishing prototypes using both Linux and Embedded Windows. We’ll talk about them at a future date, but we could be seeing the birth of the next iPod.

Choosing a New TV

I promised I would chat a bit about TVs this week so here it is in a nutshell. This will probably be the last big year for plasma TVs. Next year they are expected to be replaced in the market by low-cost, large-screen LCDs, which are still too expensive (in the larger sizes) for this year.

HD-capable CRTs are by far the best buy, but who really wants to break their backs moving the darned things. The sweet spot appears to be rear-projection TVs, with LCD sets edging out DLP products for value right now, but that could change as we get closer to Christmas.

So your best buy right now in large-screen TVs is a rear-projection. The best value right now — and use this as a reference when you are shopping — is the 50-inch Grand Wega LCD projection HDTV KDF-50WE655 from Sony. It lists for $3,000, and I found it in Yahoo shopping for well under $2,500. Given the rapid price drops, I wouldn’t recommend you pay more than that for any TV.

Here’s a shopping tip: Use Yahoo shopping before you shop to get an idea of price, adjusting for shipping (up) and sales tax (generally down). That will give you a reference point for judging good deals. Something of this size I typically want delivered anyway.

Of course, the big problem now is that my wife has hidden my credit card and won’t let me have it until I stop going on about some of the more expensive products. Watch your wallet, and watch the future, because it clearly is coming faster than we realize.

Next week we’ll talk about unusual gifts for Christmas.

Rob Enderle, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is the Principal Analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.

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