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MARKETPLACE:  Auto | Jobs | People Search | Personals | Travel | Yellow Pages  December 27, 2004
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Your Digital Home
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You could call it a digital paradise. Eric Clarke's three-bedroom home sits just off the bay in Panama City, Florida. Walk out back in the early evening, and you can see the sun setting over the Gulf of Mexico. Step inside, and you can see and hear digital media streaming from room to room. Music, movies, TV feeds, and photos bounce endlessly across a network spanning two PCs, a laptop, six televisions, and a good old-fashioned hi-fi.

One minute, you'll see Clarke sitting on the living room couch with his laptop, downloading new photos from a digital camera. The next, you'll find him stretched out on an upstairs bed, viewing those photos on his widescreen television. A second later, he'll tune the television to a satellite feed of the BBC and, with no more than a flick of the wrist, save an episode of Fawlty Towers to the PC down the hall. Later that night, with another flick, he might even stream a few jazz songs from the desktop downstairs and listen on the hi-fi.

The digital home is here, and it's here to stay. Eric Clarke, a 40-year-old maritime engineer, may be a bit ahead of the curve, but he's not the only one living this sort of audiovisual high life. According to NOP World's Roper Reports, a research organization that's been tracking consumer behavior since the Nixon administration, 34 percent of all Americans with PCs have, at some point, viewed digital photographs or videos on their PCs; 36 percent have played music; 55 percent have played games; and, believe it or not, 6 percent have actually used their PCs to watch TV.

Much like Clarke, a few brave Americans are even linking their PCs to traditional consumer electronics (CE) devices, freeing their digital media from the confines of CRT monitors and desktop speakers. Parks Associates, a firm that tracks the use of digital products, estimates that 15 million households now include some sort of computer network, and that roughly 8 percent of those�1.2 million�involve home stereos, digital audio receivers, televisions, or other CE devices. Y

es, turning your PC into an entertainment hub requires some know-how and, more often than not, a little elbow grease. But equipment is improving little by little, and if you take the plunge, you won't be sorry. You can certainly continue to enjoy music, TV, photos, and movies in all the traditional ways, but the possibilities aren't nearly as broad or exciting.

Clarke's media wonderland revolves around the PC sitting in his upstairs home office. Equipped with a TV tuner card, the system is an entry point for two different television feeds: one from a local cable provider, and one from a Dish Network satellite receiver on the roof. A so-called RF modulator (radio frequency modulator) and some standard TV cable then connect this system to the six televisions spread throughout the house. "You can find an RF modulator at your local Radio Shack," Clarke says. "It just takes a signal from your computer and converts it to a feed you can distribute to so many of the other electronic devices in your house."

Thanks to a handheld remote control and software sold by SnapStream Media, he can navigate the PC's operating system from any of the six televisions, and not only tune in to his digital TV feeds from anywhere in the house, but also record programs to the PC's hard drive.

And that's just a start. A standard audio cable connects his widescreen television to his stereo system, and a wireless network connects his office PC to a downstairs desktop loaded with digital songs and a laptop loaded with digital photos. He can stream those songs all the way to his stereo and view those photos on any television. Then, of course, the wireless network links to the Internet, providing access to all sorts of other digital content.

Building such a network is no easy task. And though there are 1.2 million households equipped with digital media networks, in the grand scheme of things that's no more than a handful, and the number isn't growing all that quickly. When it comes to connecting PCs to CE devices, most Americans wouldn't even know where to start.

"The complexity and a lack of understanding of PC-to-CE connections have as much to do with the low penetration of these solutions as any other variable," says Kurt Scherf, a Parks Associates vice president and principal analyst. "Up until now, the only way to connect the home computer with other pieces of consumer electronics was to purchase a kludgy and not always reliable wireless system, or simply lay down an ordinary S-Video or audio cable."

That said, things are getting easier. Many consumer electronics devices�including digital video recorders, gaming set-top boxes, and digital media hubs�are now equipped with built-in Ethernet jacks, letting you link to existing wired or wireless home networks in an instant.

Blaine Miller, a 19-year-old sophomore at the University of South Florida, used his Microsoft Xbox to build a simple digital media network in his Tampa apartment. His cable Internet connection plugs into an Ethernet router. The router links a pair of PCs to his Xbox, tying all three to the Internet. And his Xbox plugs into his TV, just like any other Xbox. Thanks to software built into the set-top box, he can, much like Clarke, stream all sorts of digital media from his PCs to his television. "Many times, I'll do slide shows of my digital photo-graphs," he says, "or bring up a video feed from the Weather Channel Web site."

For many, even Blaine Miller's network might be a step too far. But you can always enjoy the digital life without a high-end media network. You can simply plug a digital camera into your PC and view your pictures right there. You can edit them, post them to an online album for viewing (or display them in slide-show format on your PC), and then print them with a home photo printer or through an online printing service. If you plug in a camcorder, you can view and edit your digital videos.

You can even share them online in much the same way you share photos, thanks to services like Mediashare 4.0 (www.neptune.com) and ShareGear 2004 (www.sharegear.com). You can download songs from online music stores like Apple iTunes and RealNetworks' Rhapsody. You can plug in an MP3 player, load it with songs, and listen on your afternoon jog. You can listen to Internet radio feeds and watch all sorts of Web video, including news, sports highlights, and the latest movie trailers. According to Singingfish, an AOL-owned site that keeps a running catalog of Internet audio and video, there are now more than 45 million different feeds to choose from.

With movies-on-demand services like CinemaNow, Movielink, and Starz! Ticket on Real Movies, you can download full-length films to your PC or laptop. Thanks to sites like Yahoo! Games on Demand, you can instantly download the latest first-person shoot-'em-ups and play them with people from across the world. And, yes, if you like, you can watch and record television right there on your desktop PC.

The possibilities are nearly endless�whether you're booting up a single Internet PC or tapping into an Eric Clarke�like network of PCs, laptops, televisions, and stereos. Sounds tempting, doesn't it? Wouldn't you love coming home to your own digital paradise?

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Reprinted from PC Magazine with permission.
Copyright (c) 2004 Ziff Davis Publishing Holdings Inc.
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