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The Boob Tube Goes Broadband

In the living room of the near future, your TV, PC, and Internet will be as one.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the fastest way to transport lots of data between information devices was often to carry it down the hall on a magnetic tape or floppy disk–a method that computer scientists jokingly referred to as “Sneakernet.”

Media adapters debuting at next week’s International Consumer Electronics Show will link PCs, TVs, and other media devices wirelessly–or through old-fashioned Ethernet cables or power lines.

At my house, Sneakernet still rules, at least when it comes to multimedia networking. If I want to download a movie or TV show from an online service such as iTunes, for example, I attach my laptop to the 10-megabit-per-second cable modem in my office; if I then want to watch that same show in my living room, I have to lug the laptop downstairs.

But consumer-electronics makers have a different vision in mind, and they’ll be marketing it to thousands of attendees at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), set to begin on Sunday, January 7, in Las Vegas. The vision: consumers could simply point a remote control at their entertainment center and access video, music, or photos stored on their PC using a home broadband network based on old-fashioned Ethernet or Wi-Fi connections or newer technologies, such as powerline networking and ultra-wideband (UWB) wireless.

The gadgets that allow this integration are called “media adapters.” The category hasn’t yet attracted much attention among the electronics-shopping crowds at Best Buy or Circuit City. But at CES, where part of the massive exhibit area will be devoted to home networking, a number of companies will show off new or recently released models that they hope will appeal to entertainment junkies who want to get the most bang for the thousands of bucks they’ve already spent on the newest sound systems, high-definition (HD) LCD or plasma displays, and home computers.

For example, Netgear, already a leading maker of wireless routers for home Wi-Fi networks, will be promoting its Digital Entertainer system, introduced four months ago. The $280 device looks like a set-top cable TV box steamrollered to about 1.5 centimeters in thickness. It resides next to your TV and stereo system, where it communicates with your PC using a conventional wired network–if you’re lucky enough to have Ethernet cables built into your walls–or an 802.11g Wi-Fi wireless connection.

Using a remote control and a simple graphical interface displayed on your TV, you can call up digital movies, videos, photos, or nonencrypted music stored on any PC or hard drive attached to your home network. Your computer will compress the files and send them to the Digital Entertainer in streaming form as fast as your network can handle them. That means up to 100 megabits per second for a wired Ethernet connection and 54 megabits per second for an 802.11g connection. Both are enough to stream HD video, if that’s what you’ve got stored.

Netgear’s competitors offer similar boxes in the same price range; D-Link’s Media Lounge DSM 320, for example, goes for $200. Buffalo Technology’s LinkTheatre wireless HD media player lists at $490 but goes for $283 on Amazon. But for people who don’t already have 802.11g routers for their computers or Ethernet connections in their living rooms, a few companies are offering media adapters based on newer technologies, notably UWB and powerline networking.

UWB chip sets from Hauppauge, NY-based semiconductor maker Tzero, for example, are finding their way into media devices from Audiovox, Siemens, ViewSonic, and other consumer-electronics companies. UWB devices send data over a large range of frequencies, rather than over specific channels, as Wi-Fi routers and most other wireless devices do. This protects signals against interference and allows time-based rather than frequency- or amplitude-based signal modulation, meaning UWB signals can carry up to 480 megabits of data per second over short distances (10 meters or less), according to Tzero. At CES, Tzero and Audiovox plan to introduce a UWB media adapter, to be marketed under Audiovox’s Terk brand name, that can connect PCs, set-top boxes, HD DVD players and DVRs, and big-screen displays without the usual tangle of cables.

And there’s one more way to link entertainment devices without adding new wires: plug straight into your home’s electrical outlets. Electronics vendors have been talking up powerline networking in the home for ages, but interference problems and bandwidth limitations have kept the idea from catching on (see “Are Powerline Networks Finally Ready?” June 2001). Arkados is one of the companies that will argue at CES that the technology is now ready for consumers. It’s working with GigaFast and other manufacturers to put its chips and software into small “bridge” devices that can connect a PC to any television in a home. The devices can transmit data at up to 100 megabits per second–more than enough for HD-quality video. (For $250, Netgear will sell you a powerline adapter for the Digital Entertainer.)

Apple may actually make the biggest home-networking splash at CES, even though Steve Jobs and crew will be 400 miles away at San Francisco’s MacWorld convention, slated for January 8 through 12. The company is expected to preview–or at least talk about–a set-top device dubbed “iTV” that wirelessly streams iTunes music, videos, or movies from any computer in the home to a TV set. Given consumers’ familiarity with Apple digital media products like the iPod, an Apple entry in the media-adapter market could severely limit the opportunities for competitors like Netgear or D-Link.

Despite all these newfangled networking technologies, Sneakernet may not be dead yet. Think of it this way: if you carry a 4.7-gigabyte DVD down a ten-meter-long hallway at one meter per second, you’ve effectively “transmitted” the data on that disc at more than 3,700 megabits per second–a speed home networks won’t be reaching for a long time.

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