06 January 2007

Freeing your digital media


Ever since MP3 came about and the prospect of storing my entire music collection on my computer became reality i've ripped CDs and downloaded tracks with much rejoicing. At the time i spent a large proportion of my time in front of a computer and it was great to have any music i felt like listening to either right there or a couple of minutes of downloading away. The iPod came along and added a whole other dimension, allowing me to venture forth into the world with my record collection tucked neatly in my pocket.

These days however i work in the computer industry and the last thing i want to do when i get home is have to sit in front of the computer to listen to my music.

I'd investigated the whole network music thing a while back when Slim Devices was the only kid on the block with their SLIMP3. Although it was a nice design it was rather expensive and the prospect of having to turn on my computer to use it wasn't all that appealing.

Movies too?!

These days video has gone the way of audio to the detriment of the MPAA. You have the two original industry standards MPEG 1 & 2 but with MPEG-1's poor picture quality and MPEG-2's large file sizes they're not really viable options in the way MP3 is for audio. There are a number of other formats which are however:

MPEG-4 Part 2
Is an improvement upon MPEG-1 which produces similar file sizes but with images closer to that of MPEG-2. There are several implementations of this but the main two are the commercial DivX and the open source XviD. Both of which you may have seen support for on some new DVD players.
Windows Media Video
Now in it's ninth incarnation, Microsoft's video compression format is good and has quite wide support even if it does leave a bad taste in the mouth.
Real video
Has been around almost as long as MPEG-1 and is used for vidcasts by, among others, the BBC. That doesn't stop it being the worst of the three however.

With these compression formats able to fit a DVD on to a CD (4.7GB down to 700MB) and ever more massive hard disks available it starts looking like not only can we store and stream all our music but all our movies and TV shows too!

Affordable Network Storage

Network Attached Storage (NAS) appliances are similar to an external USB or FireWire hard disk apart from that they plug into your network and can be accessed by any computer on it. Recently companies have started making NAS apliances targeted at the home user and i've seen these popping up on Amazon for under £130 for 250GB.

One importat point missed out of the product specs on Amazon however is that some of these NAS units are DLNA-compliant, indeed it was only after looking on some other sites for price comparisons that i even discovered DLNA existed.

DLNA - The Keystone

DLNA is the Digital Living Network Alliance (formerly the Digital Home Working Group) and it's been around since 2003 coming up with a set of guidelines for interoperability between networked devices.

Although i'd never heard of it before, if you look at the roster, the list of companies involved is huge.

So what exactly does a NAS appliance being DLNA-compliant mean?

It means the NAS has the ability to not only store digital media and any other file but that it can also stream that media to any DLNA-compliant player connected to the network - that being something similar to the SLIMP3.

Some of these products are already on the market and more are in development. They include things like set top boxes such as Buffalo's LinkTheatre and Philip's Wireless Multi-media Adapter which will allow you to browse and watch media from your DLNA-compliant NAS or any Windows PC on your normal TV. You'll soon be able to buy TVs with a build in ethernet port that do the same and portable wireless devices that let you listen to music and watch video anywhere in the house over your network.

Exciting stuff

All this means that our digital media is about to be set free. A NAS for £150 and a media player to sit under the TV for £150 and you can watch all your digital video on your tv and listen to all your digital music on your hifi all without needing your computer on. What's more if you have HD video on your NAS you can stream that to your HD TV.

If your HiFi is in another room and you want to stream music there as well then just buy a music player that features a remove control and screen for browsing through your music collection to sit on top of it.

It seems DLNA has all the bases covered and i'll look forward to seeing more products coming to market with a DLNA Certified logo on. Now all they need to do is tell people about it which may be easier said than done with Microsoft pushing Windows Media Connect and Intel pussing Viiv. DLNA may still have the edge however as both of these require you to buy an expensive media centre PC to go under your TV. We'll have to wait and see.

Update - CES 2007

A recent article from the BBC's Click technology programme on the 2007 Consumer Electronics Show has this to say about DLNA:

Many companies are supporting a set of standardised formats through industry groups like the Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA).
Not much admittedly but it's a start.


Michael James said...

As great as this all is, don't you find that DRM kind of ruins things?

If you buy music or video on the t'internet you end up being tied to listening/viewing on a certain device and being able to stream it around your house becomes complicated if not impossible in certain situations.

Not wanting to turn this into a DRM debate, as there are lots of these already, I'm wondering how long it is before either DRM is made more user friendly or scrapped altogether

Derek Fowler said...

Scrapping it all together would be my choice, it's a big waste of time and money. As it is i have no DRM'd media anyway.

I've opted for buying a CD or DVD and then ripping it rather than downloading. Not only does that avoid DRM but also allows me to ensure the quality and format of the rip. No to mention being able to play the thing in full quality when i want to.