Who's got the best seat in the digital living room?

Who's got the best seat in the digital living room?

Summary: A lot of hardware and software companies, including Microsoft, are betting big bucks that they can take over the living room and be your hub for digital media. So who are the contenders? I've been looking at the digital media landscape for the past year and have narrowed the list to a handful of big players. The first in a three-part series compares features.

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TOPICS: Hardware
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[Update 25-Oct 2:30PM PDT: I've revised the chart originally published with this post to incorporate feedback from the Talkback section. Thanks to all the commenters who added details.]

A lot of hardware and software companies, including Microsoft, are betting big bucks that they can take over the living room and be your hub for digital media. So who are the contenders? I've been looking at the digital media landscape for the past year and have narrowed the list to a handful of big players.

The options I've chosen to highlight in the accompanying feature table are all built around the television set and digital video recorder (DVR) capabilities. The high end includes support for high-definition TV.

 

This isn't a complete survey by any means. If you just want to add digital music playback capabilities to the audio receiver in your living room, you have other options that I don't discuss here. You can pick up a docking station for your iPod and plug it into the receiver, or use a box like the Squeezebox or D-Link MediaLounge to stream media files from a networked computer. And I deliberately left out some contenders, most notably ReplayTV and Dish Network.

In this post, I'm not considering anything but features. Part 2 in this series will look more closely at costs, which can be substantial. Part 3 will look at some of the intangible issues, including setup, ease of use, expandability, and reliability.

With those caveats out of the way, here's a rundown on the contenders who want to be the hub of digital media in your living room:

Cable company DVRs. These days, every cable company has some sort of digital video recorder. The cable company has some overwhelming advantages, including the ability to deliver a full range of HDTV channels, relatively easy setup, low cost (typically a monthly rental fee and no upfront charge), and low barriers to entry. 

TiVo. The introduction of the CableCard-equipped, HD-ready TiVo Series 3 has breathed new life into the one-time leader in DVR technology. Unfortunately, many of the most interesting features from the Series 2 aren't available in the new model, including support for digital music and the ability to record a program on one DVR and play it back in another room.

MythTV. This is the open-source PC solution, which runs on Linux and Mac OS X boxes but not on Windows. It does nearly everything you could want in a digital media hub, but it is not for the faint of heart.

Beyond TV. The best-known third-party alternative to Microsoft's Media Center runs on Windows and has most of its feature set. It's been continually updated and is now up to version 4.4. (Update: A commenter questions why Beyond TV gets an X for multi-room features but Sage TV doesn't. Beyond TV has an add-on product called Beyond TV Link that allows the content recorded on Beyond TV to be viewed on other PCs in the same house. But the multi-room category in the chart refers to boxes that can be connected to another TV, such as a Series 2 TiVo, an Xbox 360 used as a media extender, a MediaMVP used with Sage TV, or an Apple iTV. In all those cases, the PC acts as a media server and the extender device connects to the TV.)

Sage TV. Doesn't get the publicity of the other entrants here, but is intriguing for two reasons. First, it's available in Windows and Linux versions. Second, it supports the MediaMVP extender from Hauppauge, which allows you to stream recorded TV to a TV in another room.

Media Center. Microsoft's full-featured digital media solution has been under continual development and improvement since 2002. Windows Vista Media Center has been certified for use with CableCard technology and is also reportedly working with DirecTV on add-in hardware, which will make it the first PC-based solution to offer support for premium HDTV channels. If you have a networked Xbox 360 in the living room (or anywhere else in the house), you can control the Media Center interface and play back any content stored on that PC.

Apple iTV. Apple's official announcement for this upcoming product was literally a few words in a press release about iTunes 7. (I wrote about this technology based on a few third-party reports.) The data in the feature table here is based on those preliminary reports and is subject to change.

The biggest dividing line between the technologies I've listed here is support for premium HDTV channels. Most of the PC-based products can decode over-the-air (OTA) digital channels if you have the right hardware. But the bar is much higher for cable and satellite HDTV. The cable and satellite companies have a built-in edge in that regard; TiVo (with its Series 3) and Microsoft (with its upcoming Vista Media Center) have run the CableLabs gauntlet and earned certification for their hardware.

The other big dividing line between the solutions I've listed here is in offering a unified interface for all types of digital media, including music, video, and photos. As I mentioned earlier, you can use third-party products in an existing living room AV setup to add digital music playback capabilities, but you pay a price in complexity.

Based on the unbroken line of green checkmarks next to its name, it's clear that Microsoft has decided to make its Vista Media Center the ultimate digital media hub. But having a long checklist of features is just the first step. In parts 2 and 3, I'll look at the fixed and monthly costs of all these solutions and at how likely they are to appeal to digital media enthusiasts.

Topic: Hardware

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51 comments
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  • None of them worth the cost or effort.

    Bottom line, I haven't seen a "system" that is user friendly or does what the consumer really wants.

    No rush here folks, this turkey is a long ways from being done.
    No_Ax_to_Grind
    • Not even a TiVo?

      Really, there are at least three options in this list that I personally have used and would recommend, depending on the needs, interests, and technical skill level of the person asking for the recommendation.

      There is no one-size-fits-all solution for digital media. The idea that you can dismiss all current options for everyone in the universe is pretty arrogant.
      Ed Bott
      • Especially the TiVo.

        Hmmm, buy a box, pay a monthly fee to use it, allow it to decide when to delete recordings, allow it to be "upgraded" without any concern for me as a user, can't move the recorded files to anything else without hacking it, umm No Thanks.

        I do agree there are "geeks" out there that can sort of, halfway, sometines get sort of what they want. But a real system that meets the needs/desires of Joe Average? Like I said, this turkey is a long way from being done.
        No_Ax_to_Grind
        • My Mom uses a TiVo and loves it

          Seriously, when my Mom was visiting here a few weeks ago she was raving about her TiVo and how much she enjoys it.

          I have a half-dozen neighbors that are able to comprehend and use amd in some cases rave about DVRs from a cable company, a satellite provider, or TiVo. On a geek scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is you, they are all somewhere between 0 and 2.

          Again, the idea that you speak for the entire known universe is simply unreasonable.
          Ed Bott
        • You have bad data

          Is there a monthly fee? Sure. There used to be a lifetime option, but that was dropped. But I don't think a monthly fee is that bad - in fact, TiVo dropped lifetime since MOST of their customers opted to go monthly. You can also buy one of the bundles from TiVo.com and pay just the monthly fee, with the box bundled into the cost. And if you compare the costs with other standalone DVRs, TiVo's costs aren't bad even with a retail purchase.

          You don't have to allow it when to delete recordings. The user has 100% control over how recordings are deleted. If you don't want it automatically deleting things, simply set your recordings to "Keep Until I Delete". That's an option on Season Passes, Wish Lists, and manual recordings. You can have it NEVER auto-delete if you wish. So that's bad data.

          Upgrades - yes, they auto-ugprade. Most non-technical users would prefer that. Bugs get fixed, new features get added. Cable boxes also auto-update, and I wish PCs did so we'd have less trouble with worms and viruses on the net. If you're a real geek who doesn't like it - hack it and you can stop it from upgrading.

          Moving content - more bad data. TiVo has supported TiVoToGo for a few years now. You can move content to a PC over a network as a standard feature on all Series2 TiVos. It is DRM-wrapped, but TiVo Desktop 2.3 or third party applications such as TVHarmony AutoPilot will convert the TiVo MPEG2 into WMV, H.264, MPEG-4, etc, formats for the iPod, PSP, Treo, PMPs, etc. Or you can just strip the DRM and use it as you want, it isn't that hard - AutoPilot does it, as does DirectShow Dump, etc. So there is no need for any hacking to move content.

          TiVo *is* the system that works best for Joe Average.
          megazone
          • It is DRM-wrapped

            Negates your whole argument. You have 0, zilch, absolutely no control over DRM. If you did, it WOULDN'T BE DRM.
            Ole Man
          • Not all DRM is created equally

            I'm no fan of DRM myself (am a dues paying member of the EFF even) but not all DRM is draconian.

            The DRM built into TiVo transferred files allows you to transfer it to as many machines as you want or to burn it to DVD, all of this without even doing anything that TiVo won't officially allow.

            Even then the TiVo DRM isn't terribly hard to strip off and unlike Apple & Microsoft TiVo hasn't elected to get into a DRM arms race.

            As I said it would obviously be better if the DRM wasn't there but as long as it doesn't keep me from doing thing thing I want to do I can live with it.
            raitchison
        • No_Ax, you obviously don't know about TIVO-To-Go

          I have 2 Tivo boxes and 3 computers and can watch any show from any source on any tv or computer. My wife, who won't touch a computer, transfers files from one Tivo to the other all the time. Sorry to burst your bubble.
          gsuser
      • Indeed

        [i]There is no one-size-fits-all solution for digital media. The idea that you can dismiss all current options for everyone in the universe is pretty arrogant.[/i]

        If No_Ax doesn't like any of the options listed, perhaps he'd like to try and roll his own solution? For my needs, I'd probably be best off with MythTV(or maybe Sage), since I run Linux and don't like having my recordings deleted by someone else. If I can install and set up Compiz/Beryl on my machine, MythTV can't be [b]that[/b] hard.
        Tony Agudo
    • Hit The Nail On The Head!

      For once you're RIGHT, Axey. Looks like you're 180% from your ususl self. The change is refreshing.
      Ole Man
  • The next major battleground

    I like your assessment. The living room clearly is the next major battleground in the fight for consumer entertainment dollars. It's rather enjoyable to sit on the sidelines and watch companies from all sides of the technology/service spectrum fight it out for first mover advantage.

    Of all the fights in the tech space, this is the one that will take the longest to play out, and is the most difficult one to predict at this point in time.

    Looking forward to reading additional insight from you in the near and far future.

    Carmi
    http://writteninc.blogspot.com/
    carmilevy@...
  • The Chart is not correct

    I'm a user of Snapstream's BeyondTV. I love it and encourage you to give it a try. It's a free trial to try out.

    By the way, why is there a circle icon (indicates the feature may be available but requires additional hardware or an unsupported hack) on mulit-room for BTV when they have BTV Link where you can use any pc to connect to the main BTV? Sage works the same way as BTV and it has no "circle icon". I think this should be corrected or at least clarified. Thanks!
    cfaslave
    • I have Beyond TV here

      The BTV Link does not allow you to connect to a TV, only to another PC. It's a subtle but important distinction. With a TiVo Series 2, a Media Center Extender, or a MediaMVP, you can connect a box to the TV and view recorded programs on that TV. Beyond TV allows you to view recorded TV on another computer, which is far less flexible.
      Ed Bott
      • The Chart is Wrong

        The BTV Link does not allow you to connect to a TV, only to another PC. It's a subtle but important distinction. With a TiVo Series 2, a Media Center Extender, or a MediaMVP, you can connect a box to the TV and view recorded programs on that TV. Beyond TV allows you to view recorded TV on another computer, which is far less flexible.

        Ed,
        You're wrong. With BTV you can use a mediamvp to connect to a tv - with the BTV skin and watch live tv and use all of the BTV functions - plus videos, music etc. You can also use a cable modulator. BTV Link does require a PC to connect to a second TV, but you can use an old PC or buy cheap PC to do so - MUCH more flexible than having to buy an overpriced hardware extender.
        cfaslave
    • Chart is right.

      The BTV link is just for PCs. Of course you could use your TV as a PC monitor. The
      MediaMVP will work, but it IS technically an unsupported hack.
      Hameiri
  • multiroom wrong for btv

    sorry, but there is a great add-on for mediamvp that does most of the BTV functionality on a mediamvp, including watching live tv. How about an update? In fact, with this addon, you can also do the music and photos that btv doesn't do (although they sell 'beyond media' for that on the pc).

    nrf
    nfildes
    • BTV does multi-room (just not out-of-the-box)

      This is true. I think the chart should be updated with a checkmark for multi-room with an asterisk, indicating that this is not out-of-the-box functionality, but is possible.

      Link to the BTV Media MVP plugin info:
      http://blogs.snapstream.com/2006/09/26/how-hauppauges-mediamvp-married-beyond-tv/
      g808
      • I've updated the footnote

        I've also changed the chart caption to make it clear that the circle icon also includes third-party add-ins.

        FWIW, my eyes glazed over when I saw the instructions for installing the BTV MediaMVP plug-in. Not a user-friendly process, to be sure.

        Thanks for the additional info.
        Ed Bott
        • Glad you corrected the info on the chart

          Good to see you corrected the info on the chart. FYI, it isn't difficult to install the MediaMVP extender skin for BTV. The blog article went into extreme detail for those that like lots. Steps are:
          1. Install MVP firmware (have to do this anyway)
          2. Install BTV skin
          3. Add Music and video files to MVP
          You're done. Can't see how that's too complicated for the average Ed...
          cfaslave
          • BTV MVP vs. Sage MVP

            I'm still not sure how Sage gets a checkmark for an extender??? You still have to buy a MediaMVP with special software on it - just like you can get for BTV. Is the distinction that you have to load the BTV skin on the MVP? That would be one additional step right?
            cfaslave