As we finished remodeling the condo, we realized that two key questions remained unresolved:
Is HDMI the Right Interconnect?
Everyone agrees that the A/V world of the future is digital. Digital cameras have replaced film cameras. Digital camcorders are replacing analog camcorders. After a slow start, digital television sets are selling fast and prices are dropping. All satellite television and an increasing percentage of cable is digital. The U.S. Congress recently voted to end analog terrestrial broadcasting in February 2009—three years from now.
In remodeling the condo, we expended a lot of time and effort researching how to interconnect several digital devices. We think we'll need to use six different kinds of digital interconnects:
We're more knowledgable than most consumers, and we found this very difficult. Why should we (or any other consumer) have to cope with so many different interconnects?
The consumer electronics industry appears to have agreed on HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) as the high-quality interconnect for high-definition video and audio. HDMI is a point-to-point interconnect technology, using a single cable to connect an audio/video source—such as a DVD player, set-top box or A/V receiver—to an audio/video monitor such as a digital television set. HDMI is designed to support all formats of HDTV and multi-channel audio in a single cable.
After some research, we decided to use HDMI in our condo. For our living room entertainment center, we purchased a plasma TV with HDMI inputs, and the latest HDMI-equipped A/V receiver. Our cable set-top box also has an HDMI output (we're not sure it will work with our other HDMI equipment, but intend to find out soon).
Other A/V equipment, such as our DVD player, doesn't have HDMI output, so we need to use component video interconnect cables. Our A/V receiver includes analog-to-digital up-conversion to HDMI. When playing a DVD disk, the DVD player converts the DVD output to analog component video, and the A/V receiver up-converts it back to HDMI digital. This digital-to-analog-to-digital conversion will certainly cost some video quality from the DVD.
Our PC with Windows Media Center Edition (MCE) is another source of audio and video. We're perplexed as to how to get the highest quality audio and video to the entertainment center, which is about 20 feet away. The PC has a DVI output port, which we understand we could use with HDMI (HDMI claims to be back-compatible with DVI), but has only analog audio ports. It's not clear how we could point the MCE remote control at the plasma screen 20 feet from the PC and get the signals back to the PC.
Our current thinking is to use an Xbox 360 as a Media Center Extender; it has an HDMI connector, and communicates with the MCE PC over Ethernet cabling we've already installed. But the MCE PC has only analog video input, so we're not sure the picture quality will be acceptable on the plasma TV. Other solutions based on DLNA (see below) are starting to come to the market, and we might choose one of those instead of the Xbox 360.
Finally, we already have a second high-definition TV set in the master bedroom, and are planning to install additional flat-panel sets in the guest bedroom and the kitchen. How will we get high-quality video from our PVR-equipped set-top box, DVD player and PC to these additional sets?
HDMI doesn't seem to be the right solution, since it's point-to-point from one device to another, rather than providing a "bus" architecture to interconnect many devices. There's only one HDMI output on our A/V receiver, and it's being used for the living room TV.
We have learned that some key players in the consumer electronics industry have been asking similar questions, and we've started talking with them to learn about the new approaches being proposed to simplify the A/V interconnects. We'll update you as we learn more.
Digital Television and PCs
As television moves to digital and high definition, one of the biggest questions is the role of the PC. Should PCs play a role in the future television environment? What roles should PCs play? Should the PC and TV be connected together in the same room, or can they be in different rooms and connected through a network?
The industry is certainly not of one mind on the answers to these questions. As we reported last month in Vista, Viiv and Video: "With Viiv and Vista, Intel and Microsoft seem to be expressing somewhat divergent views on the role of home networking." Intel wants a new advanced PC in the living room as part of the entertainment center; Microsoft wants a Media Center PC somewhere in the house, with a Windows Media Extender at each TV.
Many companies in the consumer electronics industry can see a role for video servers in the house—but most don't think they should be PCs. Video service providers have become enthusiastic about providing PVR functionality in set-top boxes they provide—but aren't sure whether or how to support video servers purchased by consumers.
The Digital Living Network Alliance has brought many of these players together to define how video servers (which might be PCs) can interconnect and talk with video screens. Some products based on the initial DLNA specs were shown at CES 2006, and should appear on the market soon.
Vista, Viiv and DLNA will probably all be part of the future of high-definition television. As these products appear in 2006 and 2007, we should have a better idea of how these devices will work together.