I’m a bit overwhelmed with the options open to me these days when it comes to sources of content available to play on my home entertainment system so I thought I would sit down and write about it while I try to sort it out. I’m old, so I need to keep it simple — which I could barely do a few years ago. I watched the news, sitcoms and Law and Order (every city in the world) on network TV. If I wanted a movie — I went to one, or rented a DVD from Blockbuster. For music I played a CD or tuned into a radio station on my tuner. I put in a great multi room multi source multi everything system on which to view and listen to all of this stuff. Life was good unless something got out of whack … which it did fairly often.

Supposedly now — life is better. I should be able to stream content including TV, movies, news, music and everything else — from the internet directly to my entertainment system. I should also be able to do all the old stuff too including listen and watch the movies and music which I purchased and stored on my hard drive. So, since I are an engineer, I’m going to break everything down into point form and see if I can make sense of all of these options — oh and by the way — I know you can do all this internet stuff with a phone too but I’m not even going to go there at this point in time šŸ™

1. The hardware stuff that you actually see and hear.

OK, so you still need to have some hardware if you want to be entertained. I suppose one of these days there will be direct beaming of entertainment into my head — but that may cause an explosion so I think I’ll probably avoid that option. The nice thing is that you can spend as much or as little money as you want to get a picture in front of your face and some sound to your ears. Most modern TV’s allow you to hook up input from external devices and you will need to be able to do that in order to take advantage of any external streaming content. From there you can start spending umpteen thousands of dollars to get the biggest, best picture and sound known to man. I highly recommend that you do spend at least half of your income on entertainment equipment — it’s fun — and very profitable for our sponsors šŸ™‚

2. The hardware stuff that sorts out the entertainment stuff so we can see and hear it.

Behind the scenes we need to have at least one or two black boxes to sort out the content so we can see and hear it. It comes on a wire or over the airwaves and needs to be discombobulated somehow. You probably already have a cable box that does it for network TV. The cable box actually just converts streaming content from your cable company into a picture and sound so you can see and hear it.

For streaming internet content we just need the same thing to convert internet content. Sounds pretty easy to me. The problems arise because internet content does not always follow the same rules like the stuff that the cable company puts together for you. I guess that’s why it has taken a while for this option to get into the mainstream. Oh, and there also seems to be some legal issue about who is paying for the content too — and whether or not you can share it with others. I guess those artists and producers need to make a few bucks so they can buy lots of entertainment equipment too so I guess we should support their cause.

Also don’t forget that you will need a wire or wireless internet connection to your entertainment system in order to get the content. This of course means you need a router so that more than one device can be connected to the internet in your home.

3. One more hardware thingy that controls the entertainment stuff so we can pick what we want to see and turn it down when the spousey yells at us.

Everybody loves their remote control — don’t they? Some people even like them so much that they have several lying around the room waiting to be manipulated. One could write an entire encyclopedia volume about how to use remote controls — one for all — all for one — universal — many to few — learning — pre-programmed — programmable. Dang — all I really want to do is turn on the Simpsons. I’ve currently got an RF universal remote which I like. It’s fairly simple to program and I don’t need to point it at the equipment to make it work. That said — you still need to be able to understand the basic concept of a universal remote — it can’t read your mind! You must first push the button to tell it which black box you want to control.

4. Last but not least — and here is the part that’s changing — is the stuff that brings in the entertainment content that we want to watch (item 2 above revisited).

Entertainment on demand over the internet is the newest and best game in town. So how does it work and what do you need to make it work.

You can use your computer or laptop to get the content and stream it to your TV system if you want to — but that can be a bit cumbersome when it comes to controlling it. Windows media center is a solution and they do provide a remote control solution. There are other software solutions out there that organize the internet content and present you with a menu to choose from. Boxee is one I have tried and it seems to do a fairly good job of it. So yes, a computer (Home Theater PC) can be the solution — but to many it’s just overkill and over complicated and many just don’t want a computer sitting in their living room.
Every day we see traditional hardware manufacturers bragging that their equipment will stream internet content as well as do what they were designed to do. I currently have a DVD player that streams Netflix and a bunch of other content to the screen for me. Yes it works and the available content is expanding. You turn it on and control it just like a DVD player except you select your internet content from the menu. Pretty sweet although a bit limited in the content available and not easy to upgrade. The other drawback to this is that the device does not allow me to play music or pull movies etc. from storage — where I diligently put everything I buy so I can watch it when I want to — if I ever get a system that allows me to do that šŸ™ I thought I had the solution when I installed a new networked home theater receiver that receives Pandora internet radio among others and allows me to play music from my storage device over the home network. Again — yes it works — but it’s slow to connect, very limited in it’s control options, and won’t let me shuffle or play playlists. It’s also a bit tempermental.
Traditional Media Servers are devices that are designed to store and play all of your movies and music as well as stream some content from the internet or proprietary sources. They are basically a dedicated computer with an interface designed to let you select and play what you want. They can be expensive since most of them have a lot of storage capability and powerful processors that needs cooling etc. Many also allow you to distribute the content to a number of TV’s and audio zones throughout your home. In the high end market these products seem to be doing OK but because of the cost issues they are not making inroads into the mass market. I have not personally tried one for streaming internet content so can’t comment on that aspect.
Issues that come to mind are mostly with the content itself. Who will be getting into the game, what services will they provide and how reliable will they be? Most importantly, which devices will they continue to support?

Xbox360 has a few of the big streaming services already and maybe next to the iPad/iPhone platform its most likely going to be the first place any paid service is going to target outside the browser. Hulu’s paid service for instance will come out for apple first, xbox next. Its also cheap ($150 dollars for the base unit now) and it out of the box works with Windows to stream your audio/video and its a DVD player. It also has 25 million people paying a monthly fee already for the online game service so like Apple they already have everybody’s credit card.
A newcomer to this space is a small box that is designed specifically to handle streaming content from the internet. Boxee is about to come out with one which not only looks cool but also is inexpensive and supposedly easy to operate. We’ll see if that comes to be. The nice thing about this kind of solution is that it doesn’t try to be more than it is hence there are only a few connections on the back so setup should be a lot easier for most of us. Looks like you will need HDMI though. I’ve played with the Boxee software on my computer (which I recommend if you want to get a feel for this new phenomenon) and it seems fairly intuitive as it should be. After all this is just another component and we want it to be as simple as possible to navigate — don’t we?

And there are plenty of other similar solutions out there now and coming in the near future. More on that another day. I’m still a bit skeptical about how these boxes will tame the wild west of the internet where standards come and go as fast as my appetite.

So, what are we missing. Oh, you still need all the other stuff above to watch network TV, play DVDs and CDs and listen to the radio. You’ve just added a new box to get the internet content and some means of getting the content to the box (wired or wireless router). And of course it has it’s own remote control so you can navigate and pick what you want to watch.

Are we further ahead than we were before? Well, yes absolutely. For me, the best thing is to be able to play Pandora Internet Radio throughout the house and office. It is the best streaming media application by a mile in my opinion. Streaming Netflix is also terrific although so far I am disappointed with the selection of new releases and have had some delay issues causing a movie to spin forever right in the middle. And yes, I need to be able to play my own music and movies when I want to. I have it stored on a $100 network storage device and along with my backups etc. and that is a great solution so far.

Here’s my advice if you want to dip your feet into this world. First go to Boxee and get the free download of their software and set it up on your computer. Spend some time playing with it and set it up as though you were streaming everything through your home entertainment system. Imagine that you are sitting in the TV room controlling with a new remote control. You may need to set up a pandora account or others to really get the feel of it.

If you like what you see and feel then check to see what kind of connections you can make to your existing system to add another box for streaming media. It won’t replace your cable box but instead must work alongside it. Like the cable box, you plug in an input (internet cable) and some video and audio outputs (hdmi if you have it — separate a/v cables if you don’t). Depending on what you want to stream and how you can connect the hardware, go to the good old net and search out the right box. Here is a terrific list of some of them from an AVS forum thread. Also, it looks like Google will be getting into the game soon with Google TV

Bottom line — these things only cost a few hundred rather than a few thousand dollars so what the heck — lets have some fun out there!