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The Broadband Home – More than just a Network

By Jim Bray

We’ve been talking about “convergence” for years now, the coming together of video, audio and computer technology that continues to revolutionize our homes and our lives.

At one time, convergence only referred to audio and video, such as Hi-Fi VCR’s that could be patched into your stereo system, but the sky’s the limit now. The Internet and even games and cell phones are joining the big happy family of devices that link, inform and entertain us.

The biggest advances have resulted from computerization and networking. The old fashioned CD player married computer technology with music playback, and since then computers have appeared in cars, kitchen appliances, telephones and just about anywhere else the word “technology” can be applied.

The next step was to get all this stuff to interact, to talk to each other. That’s where networking came in. Networking was once exclusively a business thing, but it home networks are now mainstream.

Soon – and this is already happening to a certain extent – computers will be talking to televisions and DVD players and more, on a regular basis. Heck, some refrigerators can already interact with the Internet via a flat screen monitor on the door which, if nothing else, gives people something to look at while they’re trying to decide what to have for that midnight snack.

I’m not sure I’d want to have my refrigerator hollering to Safeway that I need another quart of milk, but I wouldn’t mind being able to punch some choices into that screen and have my order tallied and ready for me at my favorite grocery store when I get there. Heck, I wouldn’t even mind if they’d deliver it!

Why would you care about all of this? Right now, most people who have networked their homes are sharing files and peripherals such as printers, and surfing the Internet from different locations in the home. But this is just the tip of the iceberg, and you should be looking toward the future, thinking about ways to exploit your network. There are joys to integration – such “far out” concepts as storing your music and/or videos on a server so you can not only use them throughout your home’s computers, but also so you can integrate what were once strictly standalone devices such as home theater systems.

Imagine plugging your portable music devices (such as an iPod or MP3 player) into the network – not only to upload/download music files, but to play their tunes over the network – right from the portable device. Because as good as PC speakers or ear bud headphones can be, most of them can’t hold a candle to a good set of home entertainment speakers. Therefore, it makes sense to plug your Pods into the home network and stream the music to the best audio system in the house.

With a music server you can store all your music digitally on the network, ripping your CD’s for permanent archiving and use. Not only does this offer easier access to your library, it also lets you add extra content such as notes, ratings, biographies of the musicians, etc. It can be a lot of work, but it can be a lot of fun, too.

Home theater equipment is already starting to network. I reviewed a nifty Onkyo system a while back that plugged right into the home network and let you stream audio – including the feeds from Internet-based radio stations. It worked well, but the Internet part was limited because of a lack of good Internet radio stations. I’m confident, however, that coming generations will include Browser interfaces so you can play any online source such as the audio stream from your favorite radio stations.



I already do this, though not with a networked Hi-Fi component. My notebook PC interacts with my wireless network, and when I want to stream something to my massive audio system I hook in something called a Stereo Link, which is basically an external sound card that takes the USB output from my computer and sends it to my preamp via conventional stereo RCA jacks. And if you want to get rid of the wires, you can interface a computer directly to a stereo with Apple’s AirTunes.

And don’t forget about the potential for purchasing music and movies online, a feature that could change the way we get our entertainment the same way the Internet is changing how we get our information. Apple’s iTunes is a good example of this species. With a few mouse clicks (and a valid credit card!), you can download your favorite artists and, thanks to the home network, spread them through the house – and even, via the Internet, to your friends and family the same way people now send pictures and jokes via e-mail.

Add all this stuff together and you get what some call the “Broadband Home,” a magical place where people have all their information and entertainment needs served, no pun intended, wherever and whenever they desire.

And it all begins with today’s basic network that distributes digital information through the house. If that isn’t a good excuse for you to start your network, I don’t know what is.

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