Connecting Your Home to Entertainment

Media players have been around for quite some time now, and they’ve taken many different forms over the years. At one point, we thought that the Windows Media Centre would take centre stage in our lounge room, but people just didn’t like the idea of having to boot up their DVD player. I don’t really blame them either.

After the “desktop in a DVD box” idea disappeared, we then saw media players start to take off from storage and network vendors, and from a rudimentary and humble beginning, they have evolved into powerful, connected devices designed not just to play, but truly deliver entertainment around the house.

One of the first media players we ever sold at Bing Lee was the Iomega Screenplay, and its interface was as crude as you could get. It was basically a file management system using a font from the 80s. But it didn’t matter, because it just worked. It was unobstrusively small, firmware could be easily upgraded via USB to update the codec compatibility, and it even had HDMI out, to match the inputs of the growing number of LCD and Plasma TVs.

One of the secrets to designing a good device that sits in the lounge room is to “hide the software”. All users want to experience is a smooth, non-buggy front end that you can navigate without referring to the manual every time you want to go from videos to music or change the input port.

The litmus test for me? If a family member starts to use the remote control without actually looking at it, then we have a winner. Who looks at the remote when changing the TV volume or channel? Media players need to be that easy, that intuitive.

Playing content in a hassle-free manner is one thing. If you can share it, and not have to make physical copies for each room to watch, even better. Network-attached storage, or NAS drives as they’re commonly known, have really begun to show promise as a consumer-level product. These days, you don’t need to know about IP addresses or advanced networking mysteries, just load the software and you’ll get a browser-based dashboard to change settings, security levels, etc. You’ll even get a shortcut to your drive’s location for easy transfers.

The new Western Digital NAS models are moving away from commercial storage functionality to be more entertainment-focused, with DLNA support, which many TVs now offer, and easy detection by other media playing devices including PS3 and Xbox 360. They will even deliver photos to an iPhone or iPad via an app no matter where you are in the world. The WD media players are no slouches either, with HDMI, 1080p output, and a pretty comprehensive format support.

The connected home is no longer just a catchphrase or throwaway line – we’re here, even though it’s probably still an open secret to many. Here’s the segment we produced for Bing Lee to help bring that secret out into the open. Check out how far media players and network drives have come.

Have you taken the step towards a connected home? What’s your experience been like? Feel free to comment below.

IPTV Made Easy! (videos included below)

Getting online via the television has been a holy grail pursued by major manufacturers for many years, and it appears that we are finally reaching that point of true convergence, where the lounge room melds with the computer room.

If you’ve bought a flat screen TV recently, chances are it has some ability to connect to the internet. But how do you actually make this happen? And what kind of experience do you get by using your TV as your online portal?

First, I’m going to take you through a basic checklist of what you need to make it online through your TV and then show you what Internet TV looks like today. This guide assumes that you have a TV with IPTV capability.

STEP 1: Broadband Internet Connection.

You need a fairly robust and fast internet connection at home. As long as you have cable or ADSL, and you have a decent bandwidth limit on your monthly account, you should be fine.

STEP 2: Wireless Router.

I’ve suggested this because most households, especially apartments, don’t have a wired network connection in the lounge room where the main TV usually is. If you have a notebook or two in your home, then you’ll probably already be connected sans wires. Wireless routers allow multiple devices to connect to the internet from the one broadband source as long as they have a wireless “Wi-Fi” receiver built-in.

(If your TV has built-in Wi-Fi then you can skip the next step.)

STEP 3: Wireless Dongle.

This part is REALLY important. Look at the back of any internet enabled TV, and you’ll see an “Ethernet” jack, where a network cable would usually go. Now remember how we mentioned most homes not having a wired network connection in the lounge rom? This socket on the TV needs to be converted to receive a wireless internet signal from your wireless router.

You have two choices – you can get the manufacturer’s own wireless dongle or a generic Ethernet-to-Wi-Fi converter. Either way, it will provide your TV with the capability to hook into your wireless network. In fact, to add extra value some brands include the dongle with the TV.

IMPORTANT: You should always secure your wireless network with a password, and your TV’s software will allow you to connect using the security password. It’s usually just a one-off process during the connection setup.

STEP 4: Connect.

Each brand of IPTV will have its own way of accessing your internet connection, but the good thing is that most of it is done via the TV’s remote control. You’ll need your network’s name and password handy for this part. Once your TV has confirmed that it’s connected to your wireless network and accessing the internet, only one more step.

STEP 5: ENJOY.

IPTV has started to take off because people don’t need to use a browser (and therefore some kind of keyboard) to have a decent online experience via their TV. With smartphones popularising the “app”, TV manufacturers have introduced their own apps for specific content offerings. Video channels, weather, stock updates, news headlines, YouTube, and online photo sharing to name a few, are all easily accessible using just the remote control.

Finally, let’s have a look at a couple of brands and how their IPTV offers compare:

First Panasonic, with their Viera Cast, which includes an option to use Skype, which does need an additional accessory but is a great way to video conference with family and friends:

And Samsung, with their offering called Internet@TV, which features social networking apps for Twitter, Facebook as well as Youtube and other video content providers:

Having access to the above content from the comfort of your lounge or living room has its benefits. You don’t need to move from one room to another or turn on another device, for one. Secondly, it can be a more “social” (excuse the pun) way of enjoying your friends’ Twitter and Facebook updates.

The key to enjoying IPTV is working out what information is relevant and interesting to you and utilising the apps that provide you that content. The great news is that all the big brands are continually updating and adding apps to their own service, so your online experience on TV will keep improving.