Over the top

Stacey Higginbotham has done a short writeup of Christos Lagomichos’ comments on standalone set top boxes.

Getting content from the web to your TV is driving the release of several new set-top boxes such as the Roku, Apple TV and ZeeVee. And yet one of the top chipmakers in the set-top box market doesn’t see those types of appliances winning out over the set-top boxes you get from video service providers (cable, telco, satellite, etc.) anytime soon.

I both agree and disagree with the comments, and the angle. No, it’s not fence-sitting, it’s a case of “different horses for different courses”.

A highly-evolved set top box needs to earn its place in the livingroom of today. Most consumers I talk with, from all walks of life, have a good understanding of what they want, and what might be possible, for a “converged TV” experience.

The carriers and TV companies want to you go into their very vertical, tightly-controlled product lineups: and stay there! The independents, or meta-TV operators, would like you to pick their particular flavour of vertical, tightly-controlled product range.

And the hackers have to stand alone, or find a provider for the in-between. “What if,” they say, “I could have a box that works with my chosen TV bouquet, yet can see and use all the media in my home, and can give me some options for having-it-my-way?”.

For your chance to win a CD, make a sensible, helpful, decent comment on this post, which might help a fellow reader with a tried-and-tested-and-not-made-of-Unobtanium answer. The subjectively-best/most creative answer before midnight AEDST wins two CDs.

There’s Media Centre PCs, home theatre boxen, TiVo, some pseudo-open-source hardware that I have used in the past, and variants of Linux TV. Mix that up with XBOX (old-school, and 360), a bit of PS2 and PS3, some Wii, add a pinch of DVD recorder from your local electronics superstore. Whisk with long snakes of cables from your laptop, perched precariously on a cardboard box, feeding your TV dodgy electrons fresh from the bitbucket.

Yeah, I’ve either got, or used, all of these. And it’s much, much more confusing for someone entering into the “TV World Of Tomorrow” if they’ve not get committed in any one direction.

There’s no magic bullet. Thankfully, most of us know this.

Yet investors in hardware startups try, and try again. Multinational consumer electronics giants make add-ons for Model Y of their range (but not Model Pro Z!), triple-play carriers try to shoehorn everything into a single box. Oops, wait a moment: another financial quarter ticked by, it’s all obsolete, so we needs-must start again.

Stop! Let me off!

The box that can do everything is the PC (/Mac/Linux). The box that makes TV look good is TV (or the box with lots of digital doover-whatsits on the back that feeds the TV). Blending the two is hard.

You need to do a simple analysis. One sheet of A4 paper. And the one-sheet-brainstorm works for consumers as well as designers.

Use one side for “what’s in”, and the other side for “what’s out”. Now, write up the features of hardware and software, including integration, that are required (“in”) and which are excluded, not needed, or handled already by something else (“out”).

At the end of the hour, you’ll have a picture of what you want, and what you want it to do.

Now find a geek. There’s lots, but you want one that is either a TV/gaming/set top box person, or a gadgety/computery/internetty one.

They can help decipher and advise. Note that the manufacturer should actually talk to the savvy geek for help, before they go into their labs (IMHO).

Does a solution exist? Can you get it for a decent price? Can you afford it, and its infrastructure? Get one of those, and draw up (in the margin somewhere) a plan for world domination, because you just cracked the nut.

Back in the real world, you should find a mostly-there solution. So, get one if those, and in the blank space on your sheet of paper, plan out a little roadmap for the future: e.g: add more RAM later, upgrade to HDMI when it becomes available, get a larger hard disk drive, get the ÜberPro version in FY2010.

Because I believe, if you search for the all-conquering, you will end up chasing unicorns. If you get a couple of solutions, you should be able to cover a range of experience.

So what do I use, today? (No, I shill for no-one).

  • A Series 1 TiVo, with free-to-air TV sources.
  • A Series 3/HD TiVo, with two HD tuners, a network connection for home-network-domiciled photo/video/music
  • A MacBook Pro, with a DVI-to-HDMI cable, and an optical digital lead.
  • A DVD player that can play burned media, for legit screening copies of films, and other disk-bound media

What’s on the bench, being configured?

  • A Linksys NSLU-2, to be UnSlung, pyTiVo’d and DAAPd’d
  • A couple of free-to-air satellite boxes, for aimlessly wandering the skies
  • An Apple G4 Cube and an Apple iBook G3, for watching-in-another-room applications

See, it’s hard! It’s complicated! It’s (over time) expensive! But I just keep rolling over to the next, not necessarily the newest, thing, and obsolete-and-bequeath the old gear.

What’s my recommendation for the “average joe” with, say less than $1000 to spend? You have a network at home, and a nearly-always-on PC (/Mac/Linux).

  1. TiVo HD, connected via ethernet or WiFi to the home LAN
  2. A decent home-theatre-in-a-box, cum home theatre source switcher/aggregator
  3. A software license for TiVo Desktop Plus
  4. A running copy of pyTivo (which, I think, is nearly a double-click install today)

1 thought on “Over the top

  1. I agree. I’ve been longing for the ‘Magic Bullet’ box since before I bought my first computer or synthesiser or scientific calculator or whatever. In the meantime I seem to have accumulated a wide variety ‘lesser spec’d’ devices to do their respective portion of the duties. A computer with a tape drive (oh, if only it had a 5 1/4″ floppy drive – then I could rule the world), a multi-timbral polyphonic synthesizer with built in sequencer (oh, if only it had a sampler – then I could rule the world), a scientific calculator with solar power (oh, if only it had a hard case – then I could rule the world!!!!!). Point is, I understand that said magic bullet doesn’t (and likely will not-in-my-lifetime) exist. So I do my research, cross my fingers and get something that can do (some of) what I want, with perhaps the potential for expansion to afford me at least a modicum of future-proofing.
    So what is the current state of things I use for looking and listening? Well, there’re a couple of Macs of varying vintages, a Toppy SD-STB, an Oppo DVD (with 1080p upscaler to drive the), HDTV, home theatre audio system of the large floorstanding variety, more cables than I can reasonably conceal in rented accomodation… it’s all rather complicated.
    If only I had a HD TiVo – then I could rule the world..!!!

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