Understanding how DLNA works and what it can do for you will be easier if we start by listing some of the products that can use it: TVs, computers, cellphones, A/V receivers, network-attached storage (NAS) drives, digital cameras, cable boxes, satellite receivers, camcorders, videogame consoles, and printers. With DLNA, the common thread binding all of these products is your home network. The devices connect to your network through an Ethernet cable, or through Wi-Fi or Bluetooth wireless technologies.
Once a device connects to your network, it makes its presence and identity known to all of the devices already on the network - and you don't have to do much, if anything, to make this happen. Hayung Choi, director of business development and industry alliances within HP's Imaging and Printing Group, explains: "The key benefits of DLNA are not having to install drivers and software and not having to configure anything. Because of the underlying architecture, devices connect and discover each other automatically, and they exchange information about what they can do."
When a device joins the DLNA network, it's like someone walking into a party and yelling, "Hey, my name's Joe! I'm 5-feet-8, medium build, dark brown hair, and slightly balding. I manage a Starbucks, I speak English with a Jersey accent, and I'm wearing jeans and a faded concert T from Bon Jovi's Slippery When Wet tour. Now everybody tell me who you are and what you can do for me!" Fortunately, DLNA-compatible devices get a much warmer reception on the network than you might with that routine in real life.
When discovery is done - a process that usually takes just a few seconds - all of your devices will know what's available to them. For example, once you activate the Wi-Fi feature on a DLNA-compatible Nokia cellphone, the phone will know there's an HP printer it can access. The Pioneer A/V receiver will realize there's a Buffalo NAS drive chock-full of MP3s it can play. The Panasonic TV will see all of those MP3s plus the digital photos on your Sony laptop computer plus the episodes of Lost that you recorded on your DLNA-compatible DirecTV receiver, and it will put them all into an onscreen menu for you to access at a touch.
By the way, it's not necessary for every device in your home theater to be DLNA-ready; you can get most of the benefits with just a compatible TV or Blu-ray Disc player. But having the functionality in more than one device is certainly convenient. And for now, at least, Pioneer's video and audio products offer different capabilities: The TV and the Blu-ray player can't access Internet radio, and the receiver can't access photos or video.
To find out if DLNA lives up to its prodigious promise, I and my home network played host to many of the first DLNA-compatible products, including three from Pioneer Elite: a PRO-950HD plasma HDTV, a VSX-94TXH A/V receiver, and a BDP-HD1 Blu-ray Disc player. Also present and accounted for: a Sony Vaio VGN-FZ340E laptop, a Nokia N95 cellphone, and a Promise Technology NS4300N NAS drive. Rounding out the lineup was an HP Photosmart C7280 printer updated with DLNA-ready internal software.
Connecting all of this gear couldn't have been simpler. In my home theater, I plugged the plasma TV, the Blu-ray player, and the A/V receiver into a little Linksys switch that, in turn, was connected via Cat-5 cable to the Linksys Wi-Fi router in my home office. Walking over to the office, I plugged the NAS drive and the printer straight into the router. The laptop and the cellphone connected via the usual Wi-Fi menus.
With everything poised for action, I poked the power switches, waited a couple of minutes for all of the devices to discover each other, and then started opening menus to see what I could find.
In many cases, what I found floored me. When I hit the Home Media Gallery button on the receiver's remote, a menu appeared on the TV screen, offering me Internet radio and music from both the laptop and the NAS drive. I tried the radio, and in seconds I was listening to Fijian music on the island's Bula FM. When I tired of the tunes of Oceania, I browsed the music collections on the laptop and the drive. I was able to access all of this content without using a single conventional source device.
The receiver, though, suffers from a circa-1995 interface with slow response and blocky characters. In fact, using it to browse music is so clunky that I had to tap something else for the task. Fortunately, the Home Media Gallery interface on the TV looked far better: It's rendered in crisp, smooth high-def. While it's not up to the speed or ease-of-use that iPod users enjoy, it works much faster than the interface in the receiver. The Home Media Gallery interface for the Blu-ray player also looked good, but it works much differently from (and less intuitively than) the TV's own interface. Chris Walker says that by the middle of this year, all Pioneer products will use the TV's interface, and he expects the operation to speed up as more DLNA functions are consolidated on a single chip.
As I wandered through the menus on the various devices, I was astounded by what I could do - and occasionally frustrated by what I couldn't.
In the astounded category: I snapped a picture of my dog Buddy on the cellphone and printed it out immediately on the HP in my office. I noticed that I didn't have the kinds of choices I'd have on the computer, but according to Hayung Choi, that's by design: "There's not as much functionality as if you were connected straight to a computer. We focused on meeting the customer's main needs, and making that as easy as possible."
In the frustrated category: I couldn't get images from the phone to appear on the TV. The Nokia appeared on the TV's list of available servers, but I couldn't pull content from the phone through the TV's menu, nor could I push the content from the phone to the TV or the other components, despite having punched all the right buttons. Walker swore that it worked for him, and I don't doubt it; maybe I set something wrong somewhere. I was reminded of the frustrating hours I spent trying to get my first router to work back in the early days of broadband.
Also, I expected to find a button on the TV interface that would let me print any picture being displayed on the screen. How cool would that be? Through DLNA, it's technically feasible, but it's up to TV manufacturers to implement it.
Therein lies the challenge of DLNA: It's a set of guidelines, not a list of inviolable rules like the ones that Microsoft dictates for its Windows Media Center Extender program. Much of DLNA, including the interface design, is left up to the manufacturer. Walker says there's a great benefit to this flexibility. "MCE requires you to use Microsoft's interface. You get a completely separate interface from the one you use to adjust the picture. With DLNA, we're free to design a single interface to control everything on the TV set, including the Home Media Gallery."
Some of the manufacturers I questioned about DLNA admitted that its implementation still needs more work before it will be truly user-friendly. Right now, according to both their comments and my experience, it demands the networking savvy of a typical early adopter. Asked when DLNA might become ubiquitous in consumer electronics, all answered "5 years." And all commented that once a device is networked, the cost of adding DLNA compatibility will be negligible.
Despite its rough edges, DLNA should take much of the stress out of digital living. When it's working right, and you're able to call up a world of content in seconds using your TV's remote, it's so natural and convenient that it's almost hard to believe that A/V systems didn't always work this way.