Electronic Design

Networking Invigorates The Home Multimedia Blitz

The continually morphing home-entertainment arena has turned to local-area networks (LANs) to tie things together. This year we chose three products, two fixed and one portable, as the first or best in their categories.

One of the offerings supports the Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA), and you can count on DLNA becoming more of a force within this realm. These days, you can select from a range of NAS devices that are DLNA media servers. For example, I’ve set up D-Link’s DNS-321 with a pair of Seagate 1.5-Tbyte Barracuda drives. Content from these servers can be streamed to the products I’ve chosen this year.

Samsung (www.samsung.com) essentially put a PC into its 46-in. LN46A750 HDTV (Fig. 1). However, it’s specifically designed to deliver multimedia via the network, hence the little RJ-45 Ethernet jack on the back panel. It can stream movies from DLNA media servers as well as audio and still images. Viewers can use the standard remote control to access media as well as choose what HDTV channel to watch or what AnyNet HDMI device to view, such as a Blu-ray player.

The LN46A750 is one of a family of HDTVs from Samsung with built-in DLNA support. It can also handle Samsung’s InfoLink, which delivers RSS feeds for everything from finance to sports to the screen. This might just be a precursor of what the LN46A750 can deliver since it has a flash-based processing system embedded within. The processor already has the ability to decode and display high-resolution video combined with hi-def audio from DLNA sources, so streaming from other sources is a simple step.

The LN46A750 delivers Samsung’s high-quality picture with 120-Hz Auto Motion Plus support, a 50000:1 dynamic contrast ratio, and a 4-ms display response time. This 1080p-capable system essentially eliminates the motion blur that is common in slower sets when showing high-speed action such as sports events or special effects in movies. It also has a wide viewing angle of 178°. A pair of 10-W speakers, a built-in subwoofer, and the SRS Trusurround XT sound-effect systems provide great audio. And, the HDTV mounts nicely on a wall as it is only 3.4 in. deep and weighs just under 36 lb.

The Apple iPod was a Best of 2007 pick, but now users are also looking at larger screens (800 by 480) like the Archos 5 and 7 (Fig. 2) from Archos (www.archos.com). These Internet Media Tablets have on-board hard drives. As a result, you can take them with you while the built-in Wi-Fi support allows streaming from media servers and the Internet.

These Linux-based devices are full-blown mobile PCs that come with a range of applications, including an e-mail client. There is plenty of space for applications on the 160-Gbyte or 320-Gbyte hard drives as well. Of course, most of this space will likely be used to store somewhere around 200 videos.

Video recording is possible when combined with the DVR Station or DVR Snap-on. These DVR units can capture video. Just choose what to record from the Electronic TV Program Guide. It even has an HDMI output for hi-def 720p playback in addition to S-video, VGA, and component video outputs. The system, run by a 600-MHz ARM Cortex- A8, includes a DSP for encode/decode chores.

Multimedia Web browsing and video streaming are augmented by Adobe Flash support that takes advantage of the hardware acceleration. There are a number of Flash-based sites users can enjoy, such as YouTube and Dailymotion.

The user interface is via touchscreen. The only buttons are for power and volume. The built-in applications are designed for fingers. There is a stylus just in case you need finer control over the cursor. Overall, it’s a great travel companion.

Logitech’s (www.logitech.com) Squeezebox Boom (Fig. 3) can blast hard rock or stream soothing jazz from a PC-based SqueezeCenter media server, PC, or Internet radio station via Ethernet or an 802.11b/g wireless network.

The Squeezebox Boom has a pair of 1.9-cm high-definition tweeters and 7.6-cm, high-power, long-throw woofers driven by a 30-W digital amplifier. It also has a subwoofer/headphone output as well as line-in for external devices like an iPod. The SqueezeNetwork handles online services like Rhapsody and Slacker, while the open-source SqueezeCenter can deliver PC-based audio to the Squeezebox Boom.

SqueezeCenter can provide content stored on the PC to the Squeezebox Boom. It also can control the Squeezebox Boom remotely. This is very useful for creating playlists as well as controlling volume and the current playlist from the PC. Much of this can be done using the remote, though a full screen, Webbased interface is usually faster. There are some features that can only be accessed through such an interface as well.

The Web-based aspect of controlling the Squeezebox Boom may not be apparent to must users with one PC, but users can access the interface using the Archos 7’s Web browser.

The Squeezebox Boom has a builtin seven-day alarm clock. The compact all-in-one design just needs a power outlet. The auto-dimming display is handy in the bedroom, and a wireless remote provides convenient control and music selection. Logitech’s designers included small features like a magnetic remote that mates with the top of the player too.

Need more audio? Get a pair of Squeezebox Booms. They can even be synchronized to play the same songs. The unit handles all popular formats, from MP3 and WAV to Apple Lossless.

These technologies represent the wave of new, networked consumer products that are sweeping the market. Standalone devices are going from the norm to the extinct. Check out Lab Bench Online at www.electronicdesign.com for a hands-on look at these products.

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