Somewhere along the way to the 2003 edition of CES, just about everything calling itself a convergence product sprouted wings. Not that equipment could fly, but given the ever frantic high-wire act between computing and home entertainment, this was the show where if a manufacturer didn't display an antenna or network connection, it risked having the product dismissed as "standalone"! Entry to the big tent clearly required showing some sort of interdependence with other devices, and the best handshake of all was demonstrated in mid air, without any wires at all.
The range of ever-so-accommodating products was astonishing. An average-looking shelf system could play music wirelessly from a PC. Your existing TVs and stereos could suddenly be upgraded to accept pictures and music stored in computers using your Wi-Fi network. Music from a handheld MP3 player could be heard on any FM radio without attaching a cable. A set-top DVD player with an antenna or Ethernet port could play video stored on a computer located in another room as readily as from a disc in its own tray. A PC-like universal remote tablet could download TV listings via increasingly omnipresent Wi-Fi networks.
Thanks to Wi-Fi, the Philips product manager can connect her iPronto remote control to the Internet without being encumbered by wires.
The show also marked a turning point for some A/V manufacturers, who said that rather than trying to duplicate the downloading, data-acquisition, and data-storage functions of a computer in their own products, it made more sense to let PCs do what they do best. That meant enabling A/V equipment to leverage the power of the home network, be it wired or Wi-Fi. Simultaneously, some computer manufacturers decided that instead of trying to make PCs more like TVs and stereos, simple "client" devices located in the living room made the most efficient use of existing equipment in the home office and home theater. This rethinking from two industries that in the past have built largely incompatible products spells good news for tight-fisted consumers.
The most notable shift in direction came from TiVo, which one year ago at CES announced a services-enabled TiVo Series2 model that would supposedly let you download music and games and store different kinds of content on its hard drive in addition to the TV programs it recorded. That never happened. TiVo CEO Mike Ramsay admitted on Thursday (January 9) that "the home network is the real convergence point in the home-not the PC and not the TV." Besides, he said, TiVo users didn't necessarily like the idea of shrinking hard-disk capacity at the expense of stored TV shows for the sake of nontraditional content like photo albums.
The new plan is that TiVo subscribers with home networks who pay a one-time fee of $49 per digital video recorder for the Home Media Option would be able to download software from TiVo's Web site to their PCs or Macs. Then their computers would act as "content servers" to one or more TiVo boxes. The option will be available in April to owners of TiVo Series2 models. It will also allow you to view a program stored on a TiVo in the living room on another TiVo in the bedroom, for instance, and instruct TiVo to record a show remotely via the Internet within about 20 minutes of the program's start.
Meanwhile, in March TiVo rival SonicBlue (maker of ReplayTV) will begin selling the Go-Video D2730 DVD player. For $249, it comes with a PCMCIA slot filled by a card with an RJ-45 jack into which you plug in an Ethernet cable to connect it to your home network. Built-in software lets you listen to music or view photographs and videos stored on your networked computers. You can easily pull the card out and replace it with a wireless version. While the DVD player will work with Windows 98 and above, it's not Macintosh-compatible.
Hewlett-Packard's Digital Media Receiver lets you use your home theater system to view images or listen to music stored on a networked computer. It comes in both wireless (shown) and wired versions.
Computer maker Hewlett-Packard and newcomer Prismq introduced small set-top boxes that let couch potatoes remote control music and photos stored on their computers from their TV screens. Content is streamed over a home network and converted from such digital formats as MP3 and JPG to analog stereo and pictures. Neither box contains a hard drive, but both let you view a slide show while playing music. The H-P Digital Media Receiver, expected to be available in March, will come in two versions. The en5000 ($199) must be wired to a router. The ew5000 ($299) can use a built-in Wi-Fi antenna. The Prismq Media Player ($250) has a wired port, but a PCMCIA slot is included if you want to add a wireless card.
There were less elaborate ways for certain devices to talk to one another, too. Sony's MHC-GSX1000 shelf system with an internal 60-CD jukebox includes a 900-MHz transmitter you plug into a computer's audio jack. Thus, any sound made by the computer-be it MP3 or Internet radio-can emanate from the 300-watt Sony system. The system is also game console-compatible. Using stereo cables you plug in on the front from a PlayStation2, for example, the GSX1000 mixes the game's sound effects with a CD spinning at the same time. Anyone for Grand Theft Auto and ZZ Top?
No, that's not a wing to the left of Sony's MHC-GSX1000 shelf system. It's a transceiver for audio signals from a PC.
A new wrinkle in MP3 players is models that can transmit stored music via FM frequencies to any nearby radio whether in your rack or in your car-no cables or adapters required. Two from Digital Innovations-the Neuros with 128 megabytes of internal memory ($249) and the Neuros HD with a 20-gigabyte hard drive ($399)-can be adjusted to use any FM band and broadcast at distances up to 20 feet. Both, available in February, also enable you to record any music you hear using the built-in FM tuner, line input, or microphone. If you don't know the name of the song, you can upload a sample to the Internet so that its digital fingerprint can be identified. How cool is that?
From products ranging from the youth-oriented to those meant for the well-heeled, wireless antics took center stage. Philips showed the iPronto, a tablet-like universal remote control with 6 1/2-inch color touchscreen that loads TV listings via your Wi-Fi network. Touching a program title tunes in the channel, but that's only one of many feats the iPronto can perform. At $1,699, the iPronto should be available at the end of January.
With so many devices like these sprouting wings, couch potatoes like us may well end up growing roots.
(Photos by Michael Antonoff except H-P Digital Media Receiver.)
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