Technologies designed to enrich our lives are pouring forth from the minds of engineers and entrepreneurs from Texas to Taiwan, and include such disparate solutions for business and entertainment as networked multimedia receivers, high-definition (HD) video servers, and portable digital AV devices containing gigabytes of removable storage media.
The key to getting the most out of these wonderful new tools is to create solutions that match your environment, content, and the technical comfort zone of everyone whom they serve.
Networked multimedia distribution systems for the office or home are typically made up of a few simple building blocks, including servers, receivers, control devices, and displays.
The heart of any networked multimedia system is the server. This machine stores your multimedia content and provides a portal for the reception of new music and video over cable and the Internet.
A networked multimedia server can be something as simple as a "desktop replacement" laptop equipped with a 17-inch LCD screen, a TV tuner, large hard drive of more than 100 GB, and an operating system such as Windows XP Media Center that will let you record, store, serve, output, and enjoy movies, TV shows, presentations, messages, and music. This new class of transportable media server includes the Sony VAIO VGN-A190 (about $2,800 with a 17-inch WUXGA 1920 x 1200 display). The unit's large screen and decent audio quality allows it to be used as a standalone media center in the den or office, or it can be connected directly to a home theater system in the media or living room. A remote control makes it easy to enjoy music and video in the room where the PC resides, while a network connection makes content available to compatible devices elsewhere in the building.
For more elaborate systems, one or more dedicated Media Servers can function as libraries for a wide range of content. The Denon NS-S100 (around $4,000) records audio and video from virtually any local or networked source, and stores it on two 120 GB drives (one is removable for backup). The robust Linux-based system can even serve up the same recorded video simultaneously to different users, allowing them independent pause, rewind, and other control functions. The NS-S100 will serve content to networked PCs or to its own high-end NS-C200 client boxes (about $1,000), and is compatible with both Crestron and AMX control systems.
Networked Multimedia Receivers range from simple, inexpensive, easy-to-use units, such as the Pinnacle ShowCenter (less than $300), to custom systems costing well into five figures. The ShowCenter pulls content (e.g., video, audio, photos) from your Windows PC, through a wired or wireless network, and delivers it to TV monitors and speakers anywhere in the building. A simple on-screen menu system shows you what's available, and enables you to select songs or shows with a wireless remote.
The Onkyo TX-NR1000 offers a pro-type, card-based receiver system and media center enabling easy hardware upgrades for future requirements. In its base configuration, the sub-$4,000 unit offers more than 150 Watts of audio power to each of seven channels, inputs and outputs for HDTV and digital audio, and an Ethernet interface. Large amounts of audio and video can also be distributed over structured cabling in uncompressed, analog formats with Cabletime's MediaStar and similar solutions.
A word of caution about networking: Don't expect the highest quality video from devices that communicate over a wireless LAN. While even moderately priced audio devices, such as the Netgear MP101 (less than $150) or the Motorola Simplefi (less than $260) can provide good quality audio over your wireless LAN, even the best wireless video devices may fail to deliver a decent picture at any distance or on a busy network. For the best results, connect key multimedia components directly to your hub or switch via good quality CAT 5/6 cabling.
The office or home media room of someone who utilizes large volumes of high-resolution data might require a more sophisticated, customized solution with programmed wireless touch-screen interfaces from Crestron or AMX These custom solutions costing $10K to $100K and up, provide simple, intuitive control over a wide range of multimedia and communication systems, large-screen displays, and appliances from anywhere in the office or home. Using a combination of touch panels, scheduled routines, and secure remote Internet access, these systems can also let you control and monitor lighting, air conditioning, security, and other environmental systems -- from anywhere in your home or around the world. For information about designers and integrators specializing in these super systems, and a gallery of award-winning installations, check out CEDIA website.
The quality of your viewing experience can be limited by the screen you watch. Almost every plasma or LCD screen and projector will display a wide range of signals, from conventional video and computer graphics to HDTV. It's advisable to choose a display with a native resolution equal to the best signal you expect to view over the next few years. Practically, this means that the actual number of display elements (or pixels) should be as close to 1920 x 1080 as possible and affordable. Anything less can look good, but you may be losing some quality due to the compression needed to "downsize" the HD image for display.