Wired for sound and video

Home networking will really take off this year - at least that's what the manufacturers were saying at the world's premier electronics fair. Charlotte Ricca-Smith travels to Las Vegas to test the theory (and all the latest gizmos)
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The Independent Online

The sun is shining, the margaritas are cheap, sweet and frozen, and the steaks gargantuan. It could only be Vegas, baby. But unlike the millions of people who flock to the gambling capital of the world each year, I am not here to try my luck on the slot machines, but am part of an infinitely more sorry breed - a technology journalist in search of the ultimate gadget. January in Vegas means the Consumer Electronics Show (CES): 48 football fields' worth of gadgets, gizmos, innovations and a whole lot of tat, which this year attracted a record-breaking 160,000 visitors from 110 countries.

The show kicked off as usual with the Microsoft president Bill Gates' address, and his central theme of home networking was to be echoed by all other major manufacturers over the next four days. He is looking to take Microsoft's software beyond the desktop, and the device that will make this possible is the Media Center Extender - a wireless box that connects to the TV enabling users to see and hear music, video and still images that are stored on their PCs. Samsung, Dell and Hewlett-Packard are already committed to producing the product (and incorporating it into, for example, flat-panel televisions). The price is expected to be around $120 (£65). The catch is that you need a Media Center PC to get the necessary operating system to communicate with your TV - and you can't upgrade your existing system.

CES 2003 brought the first emergence of home networking, with prototype media servers; but while this vision of the digital home isn't a new one, the reality of the technology certainly is and, according to Gates, 2004 is the year when we will see "things really delivered" ensuring that the "big winners are consumers". This year's show offered real solutions from Samsung, Daewoo and Toshiba, who promise to stream audio and video all around the home via a wired or wireless network, with installation and usability as painless as possible. The focus of the Philips stand was a "Connected Planet" with the launch of a number of new products from its Streamium range, including the Streamium Wireless PC Link Shelf System and Streamium TV, which enable the consumer to access audio and video content from the internet, via a broadband connection (either wired or wireless), anywhere in the home. But the product that had tongues wagging was the Powerline from Panasonic, which connects the home via its existing mains cabling. All the user has to do is plug the device into a power socket to stream High Definition TV (HDTV) at an impressive 170 megabytes per second, to a second television. However, Tom Dunmore, editor of the UK's biggest-selling gadget magazine, Stuff, sees this technology as a step backwards for the digital home.

"I think the idea of using existing wiring in the house is an interesting one, but it's not going to be as appealing to the consumer as wireless," he told me. "The only reason for Powerline is to stream HDTV, which we don't have in the UK."

According to Panasonic, HDTV will arrive in Europe in the next five to six years; and while that may seem some way off, it ensures that the Powerline is future-proof. And as Dan Hutchinson, editor of Digital Home, explained, current Wi-Fi technology simply isn't fast enough to handle multiple streams of even standard video.

"When you've got video and broadband and all these other things flying around the home, Wi-Fi just isn't reliable enough to ensure you get a glitch-free connection," he said. "But the Powerline is a completely straightforward way for people to seamlessly and quickly network components."

Another interesting product launched at the show was Creative's Sound Blaster Wireless Music, the first digital-media receiver to offer music-file navigation via a remote control with a large LCD, so you don't need to hook it up to your TV. The idea is that once you've configured the base unit to work with your Wi-Fi network, you'll be able to stream music (because without a TV you can't stream images) over the system to any stereo, or even a set of powered speakers. And since the control uses radio rather than infrared technology, you can hide the receiver and still command it.

Creative is also behind one of the show highlights, the Portable Media Center, Microsoft's answer to Apple's iPod, which will be able to play MP3 files as well as audio and video content recorded in Microsoft's own Windows Media digital format. Again, this isn't a new concept, as Archos and Thomson released similar products last year, but it looks to be the best version to date.

It also continues the show's theme of connectivity and sharing content - both inside and outside the home. So now you've bought the digital camera or music player, you can swap data from one device to another, whether by Bluetooth, the internet, or memory cards. Again, Panasonic is leading the way with a number of new SD memory devices, such as the SV-AV50, a two-megapixel, four ounce, digital still and video camera that can also play MP3 and AAC files. Another SD device worth a mention, if only for its £60 price tag, is the HandHeld Zvue - a portable MP3 and video player, but currently only available in the States.

Aside from convergence, there was a dearth of new products at CES 2004 and very little to whet the gadget addict's appetite; the industry is still suffering from the technology crash in 2001 when research and development budgets were slashed. Most talked-about was Sony's one-gigabyte mini-disc player, which enables users to store up to 45 hours of music on a £5 disc, along with the Gametrac, a new handheld gaming console that is also a phone, camera, movie and MP3 player, and has an impressive three-inch LCD screen. And then there were the inevitable devices that will never make it to fruition, such as the virtual keyboard, which was virtually unusable. According to Dunmore, even these failed concepts are vital to the industry, as they show the way forward: this is what CES is about - predicting new trends and emerging products, and it is this that keeps the tech-heads coming back each year.

"There is no doubt that CES is a good predictor, but you need to take what you see there with a pinch of salt as so much there is based around the American market," Dunmore continues. "So a lot of products won't ever come to the UK."

Those that do, rarely arrive in the time frame that the manufacturers or the industry would like. CES may be a great clairvoyant but it is a lousy time-keeper, and while Bill Gates spoke of 2004 as the year the home went digital, it is unlikely to truly cross over to the mass consumer market until 2005.