The Future of Home Entertainment

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Fred Wilson is out with a post describing the evolution of his home entertainment set up. After putting together what sounds like an expensive “over the top” Creston System, he now has a set up with three separate entertainment systems with lots of goodies with Mac Minis as the centerpiece to the strategy.

From Fred: “The thing I didn’t realize when I set up this system is how much a difference the mac minis would make. We use them to play DVDs, we use them to play video we buy or download from the web, we use them to power screen savers on the displays when we are listening to music, and we use them increasingly to listen to music from the web.”

Scoble also says that he just bought a Mac Mini for his living room as well.

At present I’m sort of at a crossroad with my own home entertainment system and will be significantly revamping it in the weeks ahead.

What my set up looks like today is this. In my attic I have a PC which is connected to 3 drobos and a few more external USB hard drives (the drobos and external hard drives basically hold my very extensive media library). This attic PC is connected to a gigabit ethernet network that is deployed through the house.

In the living room I have a Media Center PC, an XBox 360 and a HDTV DirecTV 4 tuner TiVo.

In the kitchen I have a small LCD HDTV connected to a second DirecTV non HD box and then my MacBook Pro floats around with me in other rooms where I’m constantly connected both with a wi-fi network in the house as well as ethernet connections in every room.

So today I use the Media Center PC to grab my music and photos from the attic drobos over the network. I use the XBox 360 to play games (and also to watch DVDs since the DVD player on my HP Media Center PC is simply horrible and only works about 5% of the time). And I use the DirecTV TiVo to record television and watch things when I want.

I also recently signed up for Netflix (which I love) and use this to get new DVDs for viewing and for the “watch now” feature on the Media Center PC.

One of my biggest problems today is in the living room. I’m using a two year old 43″ Pioneer plasma HDTV. The two biggest problems with the Pioneer plasma are that it is horrible with the inputs (no HDMI and only one component HDTV — a big hassle to have to physically switch cables when going from the TiVo to the XBox 360) and that it is only 720p HDTV.

So step one in upgrading my entertainment system was to replace this plasma. So last week I ordered a new Panasonic TH-58PZ700U 58 inch 1080p Plasma HDTV The set has had really good reviews, is 1080p, and has hdmi inputs as well as multiple other inputs. This new HDTV will sit in my living room and I’ll be moving the old 43″ Pioneer to the bedroom.

I also over the weekend bought an XBox 360 Elite. This will be connected to the new plasma and I’ll move my old first generation XBox 360 up into the bedroom with the Pioneer where I can use it to watch Netflix DVDs and get MCE content from my MCE machine in the living room using the XBox 360 as an extender.

So this is where I am at today.

And this is my dilema. With this new system do I push forward with a 100% Media Center strategy including a new CableCARD Media Center PC as the hub of the system and XBox 360s as extenders? Or do I move forward with a dual Apple/MCE strategy and follow Fred and Robert’s lead and buy Mac Mini’s or Apple TV for the various plasmas in the house and use these?

On the one hand the MCE strategy really appeals to me. Primarily because having everything enclosed in one system would seem at first blush to be simplier. Simply buy a CableCARD PC to replace my attic PC. Dump DirecTV and TiVo. Use this machine to stream all of my photos, music and HDTV to the various XBox 360s in the home. Each HDTV would have a built in DVD player on the XBox 360, could play games, and could get all my media. I also wouldn’t have to pay for extra cable or satellite boxes to connect up to the various displays in the house.

My hesitancy in pursuing this strategy though is two fold. One, CableCARD PCs are still in their infancy and I’m not sure that set up will be as rock solid as my current HDTV TiVo set up. Two, my current Media Center PC cannot handle my large digital library (about 100,000 high bit rate mp3s and 60,000 or so high res JPG image files). iTunes (by the way) handles my large media library brilliantly. Unlike MCE (powered by Windows Media Player) my music experience with iTunes on my MCE machine is flawless. Never a delay when I want to hear music vs. up to 5 minute delays to load music on my Media Center software.

So the negative to going with an Apple based system is that Apple doesn’t incorporate premium HDTV DVR functionality into their system. So I’d have to stick with my HDTV TiVo having a three prong system (Apple Mac Mini or Apple TV, HDTV TiVo, XBox 360 MCE setup).

Anyone have any suggestions or advice?

18 Replies to “The Future of Home Entertainment”

  1. Apple TV is a rip – for not much more, the Mac Mini provides *a lot* more functionality. IMHO Apple screwed up by not more explicitly making that the centerpiece of their living room strategy.

    My advice is to go for Mac Mini + Tivo. Or, if you don’t mind going through marginally more work and don’t have any moral qualms about it, drop the tivo and torrent your favorite TV shows. (As a more legal alternative, you can build a myth tv box, which is perhaps the best solution IMHO.)

    Anyway, I did the Mac Mini thing myself a while back (if you haven’t figured that out yet) and to me having a fully functional PC makes all the difference – I know that I can make it play any video format I can throw at it, it’s not reliant on my network (streaming is never as foolproof as it ought to be), and I have OS X plus a full featured web browser with all the functionality that entails at my disposal – for example, I use it for the XM radio web player.

    I also prefer it for being a standalone solution – the 360 is nice, but the fact that it only works as an “extender” rather than a standalone solution is a deal breaker for me – it’s rare, but I’ve been known to unplug the mac mini and bring it to my parents house to do slide shows for them.

    In short, it’s not the most integrated solution at this point in time, but it’s by far the most functional.

  2. JK, Yikes! My bad. I included the wrong model in this article which I’ve subsequently corrected. The 1080p plasma I purchased was not model TH-58PX600U, but rather Panasonic TH-58PZ700U.

    Thanks for pointing this out!

  3. I’ld also go with the Mini. The Apple TV is nice, but nowhere near as versatile as the Mini (to my mind, it requires far to much hacking to get it to the point that it would be useful to me). The only thing that I wish the Mini had is an HDMI cable, because it limits the TV choices to ones that support DVI. On the other hand, the optical audio out is nice, especially if you already have a 5.1 audio, and don’t mind listening to your movies over your high-end audio system.

    I’ve also considered a CableCard system, and if it worked, it would be the one thing that would entice me to get a Vista system. The problem is, support is non-existent, and even Engadget had issues setting it up with the help of cable techs and Microsoft engineers physically setting it up. Also, there is no DIY allowed. You can only get CableCard with a (very expensive) OEM system. Give it a few years and either CableCard will be useful, or TV as we know it will be dead.

    You should also be mindful of how important HD content is for you. Macs won’t play HD-DVD or Blu-ray disks like a Vista machine will. Since this is a business choice by Apple not to booger up OS X with end-to-end DRM, this situation is not likely to change. If you want an HTPC that plays HD disks and don’t mind the anti-consumer nature of it, then the Mac won’t do it for you.

  4. Out of curiosity: what’s the generation of your MCE, 2005 or Vista? I’d hope that it’s not the newer one choking on the Music Library and taking 5 minutes to start playing!

  5. Out of curiosity: what’s the generation of your MCE, 2005 or Vista? I’d hope that it’s not the newer one choking on the Music Library and taking 5 minutes to start playing!

    MCE 2005, but I don’t think it matters, I think the issue is with Windows Media Player’s inability to handle large digital libraries.

  6. I tried the MythTV route, and didn’t like it. I’m quite technical and it still took me a few hours to get running, and my picture quality wasn’t very impressive. I was using one of the Haupauge cards and was very unimpressed with the quality compared to my Comcast DVR.

    I’m using a custom media server that I’m hoping will work well with an XBox 360 as a media extender. Currently, I’m using an old XBox for this client functionality. I do like the appeal of a a nice looking, slim AppleTV like device, however.

    I’ve tried building many, many PVRs with MCE, SageTV, Beyond, Myth, and have never been happy with them. So, for now, I’m content with the cable box as a DVR. And I gotta say that my Comcast DVR delivers a much better picture than my series 2 Tivo eer did, and much better than anything I could cobble together with 3rd party software. So, I’m content that none of these media centers handle tv recording very well.

    While, I would LOVE to be able to have one server recording my shows and making them available to the whole house, I’m finding that it’s good enough to just have one DVR on teh main tv and spending the $15/month. Afterall, my time is worth so much more.

    I don’t think we can be many years away from PVRs being obsolete, which will mean things like AppleTV or our cable boxes, accessing online content with be a reality. I don’t know why Hollywood or the networks can’t get a system in palce where we can get ANY movie, any show, anytime, anywhere. I’d gladly pay for this. Granted, I’ll probably be cancel ling cable tv at somepoint in the future since I don’t just turn on the idiot-box and stare away, I watch with a purpose. The cable companies are providing me with high-speed internet, so they shouldn’t be complaining about their lost revenues from no more cable.

  7. Ooops, let me correct what I said, I’d like something small and sexy like and AppleTV if it weren’t so locked down. I need to be able to play all file types from my media server.

  8. It all depends on how you want to use your systems and where you want to use it. It seems you are vested fine in your Media Center setup.

    I really love Amazon Unbox and it works well with the Media Center, Vongo is OK… and I just ended my subscription due to lack of good and new content. In fact I am ready to end all my premium channels due to lack of good content, but that is another story…

    Gaming and Media are bigger in our household than television. So it works well for us and I am hoping WebFives photo upload,storage and sync with Media Center in the future to help facilitate managing photos and sharing. Music works well with ripped media,Zune,a Sonos system, and streaming music from Sirius and XM.

    PC gaming is nice on a Media Center with a DVD/CD changer and makes for a great experience.

    Works great on the Slingbox for other room viewing or on the road. I also have a pair of networked Replay TVs as recording backups when my other Tuners are busy recording. The Xbox360 works well as a home extender/gaming device and may offer more capabilities with IPTV when it rolls out and you can already watch HD movies on it either with the external drive or via download.

    You have a good back up with the TiVo, but its a sad state of affairs that the Direct TiVo doesn’t support Tivo 2 Go and PC sharing with out some hacking.

    I would wait… till at least CES/Mac World time. I sense an update for the Mac Mini/Apple TV to meet HD demands with DVI/HDMI support and maybe even HD DVD and Blu Ray support too. Vista Media Center may have an affordable OCUR solution for the masses and QAM capabilities, heck it would be nice to see DVD streaming as well, but I am not holding my breath.

    The best integrated system I have seen is this system which will be at CES 2008 by SE2 Labs called the ITC One and can be customized by the end user. Check out the options:

    The following components can be included: Microsoft X-Box 360, X-Box 360 HD DVD Player, Nintendo Wii, DirecTV, High-Def TiVo, Dish Network DVR, national cable providers DVR, including Comcast, Time Warner, Cox Cable and many more, AMX Netlinx Control System, High-End Digital Surround Processor, Bryston Pre-Amp Processor with full digital outputs, IcePower High-End D-Class Amplifiers, High-End Video Processor, Front Touchpanel Screen, Apple Video iPod with Dock, proprietary Remote Control, Power Conditioning, Transparent Cabling and Cable Harness and an Anti-Noise and Vibration System – all integrated through a revolutionary design, working together from an elegant, compact box. It’s like a house full of electronics slimmed down to a small console – 18” wide x 21” h igh x 20” deep. The ITC One will be sold through custom installers starting at an MSRP of $24,995. πŸ™‚

    Or you could build your own cusomized solution for much cheaper…and be happy it fits all your needs.

  9. I use both platforms and I have to admit…for the living room and the 10-foot interface, it’s tough to beat Microsoft offering. One person asked what version you use, Vista or MCE2005. After making the move to Vista, I have to admit–it’s far better for living room. To add, Microsoft has added IP TV as a TV option. Granted, it’s beta right now, but it works really well, if you don’t mind the occasional X-Box 360 ads. With your X-Boxes, you can also expand on your MCE systems and bring TV to parts of your home with no such hookup otherwise. I can’t speak to accessing tons of music (I have maybe 50GBs of music) like you have, but it’s been pretty fast. I can access the music there faster than I could on my iPod, that’s for sure. I just recommend one cool running silent HTPC with a good amount of memory (at least 4GB) and the 64-bit flavor of Vista to access that much RAM. I have been waiting for the CableCards to standardize and get easier to use (apparently, rev 2 is emminent–which supports dual tuners on one card). When it does, I might go with a company like Velocity Micro to purchase a machine. The prices are very competitive and are cheaper than anything I can come up with from Apple that cannot even deliver a comparable living room experience. You can even go for one of those Sonos Audio device if the music performance of the PC still doesn’t do it for you.

    At my home, I have a triple tuner machine (with OTA HD) that serves all the rooms in my house with recorded TV shows and music. I also have the Netgear ReadyNAS NV+ 2TB server for file sharing (such as music). In the shed, I can access all my music and shows, in the garage, I can access my music–through 802.11n or gigabit. In the kitchen, we have a unit that we can watch shows and review recipes.
    It all works really well.

  10. Thomas – Vista Media Center will handle your mp3 library MUCH better than 2005. I don’t have 100K songs but I have over 20K and it went from very sluggish on Media Center 2005 to snappy on Vista Media Center. Do a little Googling and check it out for yourself…

  11. I got the Mini hooked up to my 720p “monitor/HD tv” along with a Firewire Mini looking 500g hub (next to the Wii it’s sexy!!) it’s the best thing I could have ever done. I ain’t got no cable…I do have bit torrent so I still get Weeds. Okay- I got movies,podcasts,videoblogs,bit torrents,tv in HD, itunes radio, and an awesome screen to view Zooomer streams. I also can’t login into my Zooomer stream please help?

  12. i am in a similar situation.

    i live in Manhattan (read: small space) and currently have a plasma/mce2k5-custom htpc case in my den, and plasma/xbox360/extender in my bedroom. i also have a normal PC/and laptop at my desk.

    a few years ago i wanted a htpc that was easy to use (WAF), could record live tv, play mp3s, pictures, play downloaded divx, dvds, and didnt have a monthly EPG fee. MCE was the clear solution.

    since then, because of the open SDK, mostly, many people (myself included) have written 3rd party apps, i use webguide to stream/schedule/record shows of the web, mymovies to manage movies/watch trailers online, play mame games with my xbox360 controller, stream torrent tvshows and movies to my xbox360, etc. to my- this is still the only device that can do all these things. and it does it well, imho.

    in terms of HD, i remember reading TH’s post many years ago about the promise of Cablecard, but after reading the follow-ups, and seeing firsthand how buggy they are, i realized that might not happen. after owning a OTA Fusion HD card that didnt work well, i found HDHomeRun and have been using it for 90% of my HD viewing (tnt, 2-13). i never have to switch inputs on my main TV.
    and- my lowly p4-3.2 can support record analog and hd and the same time (my wife and i have different tv tastes, it seems).

    going fwd, i am, also, torn.

    i recently decided to purchase an imac, and was considering
    a) MAC -a macmini to replace my old/sometimes noisy htpc/dvine5 case.
    b) MCE RETAIL – i now know i dont want to dish out $1500 for a cable-card mce that might or might now work – just to get espnHD recorded.
    c) MCE DIY – build a custom HTPC with a new case (with bigger/silent fans), fast CPU, vista MCE, 4gb ram, etc.

    based on all the reasons above, i still think #c works for me. i might also get a dual-analog tuner (and a matching one from TWCNYC), and a larger HDD than i have now.

    my 2 cents.


  13. Check out Chris Lanier’s post today on his blog about Dell’s re-entry with a cablecard PC.

    You can be all in for about $1100 with one digital tuner. However, I would spend a few more dollars, add a second drive and have it setup in RAID array that stripes your data (music) across two drives. This should allow Vista to quickly pull your music up in Media Center.

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