HD Today: HD, HPTC, and Apple
Posted Oct 25, 2006

Normally, I talk about HD as it pertains to production. But as a Mac user, TiVo user, owner of a client-showroom home theater, and someone with a long-time interest in home theater personal computers (HTPC), I wanted to comment on the other end of the equation: playback and presentation.

I have started to use my TiVo as the source for my demo reels in my client showroom. It makes it easy to cue up any number of video programs, and the interface is very clean, fast, and easy to navigate. Now that TiVo has announced its Series 3 units, which can handle three simultaneous HDTV streams, I can definitely foresee myself using a Series 3 to show off my years of HD event productions—that is, once I figure out how to get my HDV onto the TiVo box. But maybe there's a better solution.

Apple's recent announcements regarding the new iTunes with movies and its forthcoming iTV box had me perplexed until I realized the fundamental flaw in this design. It is the tail wagging the dog. The iTV is not your video content; it is merely a tiny portal to your video content which resides elsewhere in the house.

I have read speculation about why Apple announced the iTV box now, without plans to ship it until the beginning of next year. One theory is that Apple is waiting for 802.11n, a WiFi standard that finally offers enough bandwidth to stream video, and even HD movies, from your PC to your TV.

While there are plenty of "Pre-N" WiFi components out there, reviews and comparisons have concluded that interoperability between different manufacturers' products is very poor. Sometimes there are problems even within a manufacturer's own product line, unless you get the same series using the same chips. So if Apple is indeed waiting for wireless harmony, they really needn't bother.

This iTV box is the next evolutionary step from the original iTunes, where content was downloaded and played on the computer. Then came the iPod, which extended the computer library. Then Apple gave us Airport Express, a wireless extension of the iTunes interface that enabled you to hear the music on your Mac in another room, through your stereo. But this starts to demonstrate the flaw in this design—how do you control your music from the living room when your computer, aling with your iTunes, is in your den?

Now add iTV, and Apple has you sitting in front of your TV watching high-bandwith content streamed from a computer in the other room. Sure, there are workarounds, but why work so hard to control and transport remote content when the solution is simple? Just move the content to where the screen is.

Picture a rack of hi-fi gear and components. There are cable or satellite wires coming in from the outside, perhaps even a phone line for data to be passed back to the services. My TiVo requires a phone line or WiFi to download schedule data. The newest entry, MovieBeam, is a standalone box with rentable movies on it. It downloads the latest ones automatically from DTV datacasts in your neighborhood but requires a dialtone to transact rentals. Any media center setup requires numerous wires, and several connections to the outside world.

It made sense when we were playing around with audio and ripping our own CDs to have the content sit on a laptop or desktop in our den. Taking the music with us out of the house on a lightweight iPod made sense, too. But the home computer is not where the family gathers to enjoy Monsters, Inc., so why should the content reside there? Now is the time to migrate the media to where the big screen is.

My TiVo never has any problem getting new content, because basic cable delivers more programming than I could conceivably ever watch. I can access that content as fast as my fingers can press the remote buttons, because the content resides on a speedy 3.5" hard drive inside the TiVo Box. Add audio amplification and a screen and you are done.

HTPC is the solution: a single box that plays HD right out to your TV, with a TiVo or equivalent; DSL, cable, or satellite for downloading music, movies, etc.; and a built-in digitial audio amplifier. The hard drives holding the content are right there inside the box, so there is no reliance on wireless audio or video from content that sits, for no real reason whatsoever, someplace else in the house.

For your home office or client showroom, the better solution is the HTPC because the computer is right there, connected to your display. You can fill the box with big hard drives to show any HDTV content you want. You can configure and upgrade to your heart's content. Check out www.avsforum.com; there's an entire section for HTPC, and it is filled with people who have been doing this for years.

By putting the content in the showroom on an HTPC, you can use that room for playback of your favorite titles, and when clients arrive, you can seamlessly switch over to showing your SD and HD demo reels, without the heavy compression that is required to fit them through any wireless pipe. You can show uncompressed HD playing back from the internal hard drive. This is guaranteed to knock the socks off future clients more so than trying to leverage some oddly shaped iTV box that must pull content from somewhere else over a home network.

Editing will still happen in the edit suite, of course. But in the showroom, the HTPC—with everything in one standard, component-shaped box—is the way to go.