If digital technology has done anything, it has increased our options. Many of us can remember the Dark Age of television, when there were only a dozen stations showing lousy programs. Now, we bask in the Glorious Future of satellite TV and digital cable, with hundreds of channels showing lousy programming. We can even get lousy programming on demand. Lucky us.
Loyal readers of Camcorder & Computer Video know all too well how digital technology has brought heretofore unimaginable options to video recording. Just skim the pages and behold the alphabet soup of formats, software titles, devices and technologies that are now at your fingertips, thanks to the digital revolution.
But, if digital bestowed its blessings to the recording and editing of video, it has been slower to transform the storing and viewing, which has largely remained store on the medium you recorded on in the first place, and view on a TV by connecting your camcorder to the set or, format permitting, dropping it into a VHS or DVD player.
In the age of ten thousand TV stations, this will not do. And, it won’t, for long. Here’s what the future of video will look like: shoot your video on any or every format imaginable. Import it into your desktop and, after making any necessary edits, leave it there. If you want to view on your computer monitor, using nothing more than a remote control, you can. If you want to view it on your TV in another room, you can, scrolling through your entire video collection right on screen with your remote. If you wisely wish to archive your video, you burn discs with the touch of a button, leaving a neat stack of discs to safeguard your treasured memories in the event your computer explodes, rather than an unwieldy library of poorly labeled discs that clog up shelf space.
Thanks to the maturation of computer and home networking technology, and the rapid proliferation of hard disk drives into devices like DVD players, the future is here.
Medza Center for the 21st Century
The living room is the single most precious slice of real estate in the entire electronic kingdom, and the television is its center of gravity. If the TV was around when King Wen Wang was cooking up Feng Shui, we wouldn’t care about positioning mirrors to deflect negative energy flows but where to position the 50-inch widescreen to get the best view of the game. So, it’s no surprise that Microsoft has turned its eye toward conquering your comfort zone, banking on the versatility, if not the stability, of the PC-platform to deliver home entertainment features that traditional electronics can’t to date.
- The main weapon for Microsoft is its Media Center operating system
Its powers a class of computers called Media Center PCs. These computers can connect to a television (and, of course, traditional PC monitor), allowing you to store, view and edit your digital video directly on your TV, using the most revered appliance in the history of electronics–the remote control.
The Media Center PC is robust. Microsoft’s aim is the ultimate all-in-one home entertainment device, eliminating the need for aw others (no surprise there), so there are a host of features that we can only skim through here. For instance, when connected to a TV, a Media Center PC can serve as a digital video recorder, or DVR (TiVo being a popular example of a DVR), recording TV to the hard drive for later viewing.
There are 17 manufacturers making a range of customizable Media Center PCs, so it’s difficult to easily generalize. But let’s. All are pricier than your typical PC as they’re beefed up with faster processors (typically 2.4GHz on up), DVD drives and burners, high-end sound and graphics cards, and a minimum of an 80GB hard drive for storing bulkier media files, like digital video, TV and music.
- The Media Center operating system essentially fronts all of your digital entertainment options on the startup screen, letting you choose what content you want to enjoy by scrolling through the large icons with your remote. So, you plop down on the couch, fire-up the TV and computer, and instantly scroll through all the digital content that’s saved on your hard drive.
- For our purposes, the Media Center promises a central repository for your video files, easily accessible on the large viewing area of your TV. Rather than importing video into a computer in another room and either burning a DVD or reconnecting the camcorder to the television, you can simply import the video right there and even do some basic edits through the TV. Another plus, if you use the hard drive to store your video, you’ll have your entire library available to you with the touch of a button, right on your TM Perfect for impromptu reminiscing.
It’s also a more intuitive and better-organized way of storing your videos than simply stacking poorly labeled cassettes on a shelf. But, even a large 250GB hard disk drive will quickly evaporate, if you amass large amounts of video, even if it is edited. You may need to invest in an external hard drive for additional storage. And, as with all things computer-related, there is the very real worry about hard drive failure. If you rely solely on your PC’s hard disk drive to store your digital video, you’re asking for heartbreak. So, you’re back to square one saving it on a removable format!
However, if you use the Media Center as your principle video depot, you can store the physical media (the backup tapes and discs) anywhere deep in a closet and forget about them until a calamity strikes.
- There is another dark side to the joys of Media Center usage
Unless they’re angling for worker’s comp, no one will want to do in-depth video editing with their face a mere foot from a 42-inch widescreen TV. Thankfully, this downside is being addressed with something called Media Center Extender technology, which will give you the benefits of the TV-connected Media Center PC without having to physically place your computer by your television.
Rather, your computer can stay in the office and function as a “media server,” beaming your digital content to the Extender device. Media Center Extender technology is a set-top box that will connect to a TV and use a home networking standard (wired or wireless) to move your digital video from your Media Center PC to any TV it is connected to.
If you don’t have, or haven’t heard of, a home network, you will. Its most common home usage is to allow several computers to share one Internet connection, either with wires or wirelessly. Office networks allow multiple computers to access the same, centrally stored, information. But, home networking is coming to home entertainment, and the same standards that send the 1s and 0s from the Internet throughout the house can also send your digital video (also 1s and 0s) for display on any device connected to the network.
So it is with Media Center Extender devices. One of the big plusses of Extender is that it can allow up to five different applications to run at the same time from one computer. Say, for instance, you’re viewing your digital home videos on your TV in the living room, while your kids, taking a much needed study break, are upstairs on the same computer listening to MP3 music files (purchased legally, of course) without either interrupting the other. That’s a family value if I ever saw one.
To date, Alienware, Deft, Gateway, Hewlett-Packard, and Samsung say they will have Extender-compliant devices by the end of this year, though, of this writing, none are on the market. If you’re considering the Media Center route but don’t fancy the idea of a PC in the living room, you can wait for Extenders to hit the market and set up a home network.
A Software Alternative
If you don’t want to turn your TV into a PC, why not turn your PC into a TV? There are other PC options beyond using Microsoft’s Media Center. Consider Cyberlink’s PowerCinema 3 software, which lets you browse through all the digital content stored on your computer’s hard drive (video, MP3 music files, pre-recorded DVD movies, and photos) with an included remote control. It turns the PC into a multimedia center with functionality quite similar to what Media Center delivers. In fact, to enjoy the benefits of the software, you need to be running Windows XP and have an updated graphics and video card compatible with Direct-Way (video) and DirectX (audio). You’ll also need good PC speakers, if you want quality audio.
If your PC monitor is sufficiently large (say 17 inches or larger), then the software is a worthy investment. The icons are large enough to view, and scroll through, at a distance and the software lets you customize a number of parameters to make later viewing more to your liking. You’ll need a free USB port to plug-in the IR sensor for the remote control.
You can get video in a standard TV ratio (4:3) or the increasingly popular widescreen format of 16:9. For your personal video collections, you select Video (not Movie, which designates pre-recorded DVDs). The software can play back MPEG-1 and MPEG-2, AVI, MWV, and ASF files. It will cost you $59.95 to download.
DVD Players Plus
Thanks in part to the advance of the PC on the living room; electronics makers are putting more sophistication and features into their devices to remain compelling. No where is this more evident than the DVD recorder, which, in addition to its ability to record TV and movies right to DVD discs, offer hard disk drives that can store your digital still photos, TV and recorded video.
One of the obvious benefits of new DVD-based camcorders from Sony, Panasonic and Hitachi is the ability to simply drop a finalized disc into a DVD player to view video on your TV as you would a typical DVD movie. Since these companies also make DVD players/recorders, they’ve begun to integrate more sophisticated video-editing and storage features into the products to make both more appealing.
Take, for instance, Panasonic, which offers its DMR-E80H DVD recorder that can transfer the video stored on a blank DVD (and even flash memory cards, i.e. Secure Digital) to an 80GB built-in hard drive. From that hard drive you can perform some basic edits, right from your TV The DVD can also play MPEG-2 or MPEG-4 video files right off an SD card, and you can store this video onto the unit’s hard disk as well.
Of course, the current crop of DVD recorders can’t house your entire video collection and your recorded TV. However, these units serve as a nice repository for your “greatest hits” by storing your best video and still photos right by the TV so that when the relatives come over, you can easily wow them. It’s also a far less expensive solution than buying a Media Center PC. DVD recorders with hard disk drives typically start at $600.
Flash Card Readers
If your camcorder features a flash memory card for capturing stills or short MPEG-4 or Motion JPEG video clips, you can view both on the TV without having to plug-in the camcorder. Flash memory card readers have migrated from desktop to set-top and serve as another neat way to view digital files without the hassle.
A company called Roku makes the only flash card reader (as of this writing) that can play back digital still/video files on high-definition televisions. The Roku HD1000 has slots for the various flash memory formats (including Compact Flash, SD/MMC, Memory Stick and SmartMedia) to display digital still images and MPEG video on an HD, as well as an analog, TV set.
If the thought of moving video to your TV via a flash card is not practical, the H D 1000 can also connect to home networks via Ethernet (wired) or 802.1 lb (wireless) and serve as a hub for your digital entertainment. It won’t actually store your video files (the unit doesn’t have a hard drive) but rather will use your computer to safeguard the video and draw it down to the television when you’re ready to view.
When connected to a network, the HD1000 serves like an Extender device (though it is not one), only with flash memory card slots and the ability to output files to an HDTV. It can display the gamut of digital media files including still images, video and music. Suggested retail price is $299.