New looks for home networks

New looks for home networks

Your customers have got an MP3 collection on the desktop PC in the den, digital photos on the laptop and DVDs in several electronic devices. How can your business help them spread that wealth of digital content across the house?

Plenty of consumer electronics product vendors have ready answers. Most of them involve an Ethernet network — they’re fast, reliable and can span a large home with ease. But few home owners want to bore through walls or pull up carpets to install Ethernet cable.

Enter wireless technology, which is available in a variety of packages. The good news is, it can transmit music and video almost as well as Ethernet, but it doesn’t require installing wires. Some of the newest solutions use FireWire technology (also known as IEEE 1394) combined with the coaxial cable that typically carries a cable television signal.

Wi-Fi remains the current champion of home networking, posting an incredible increase in popularity over the past few years. Wireless networking companies are continuing to refine the technology, and a number of forthcoming devices are dedicated to moving digital music, video and pictures from computer hard drives to televisions and stereos.

Strictly musical

Many of the newest products, previewed at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, were designed for moving music files.

Linksys has introduced the Wireless-B Media Link for music, which uses 802.11b or Ethernet connections to stream music (MP3 or Windows Media Audio files) to home stereo systems from a PC hard drive or from the Internet. It has an LCD screen.

The Media Link for music is expected to be released in Australia in the near future, according to Linksys representatives. The device will also accept streams from Internet radio stations and music streaming services.

Netgear has released a similar device, the MP101 Wireless Music Player. It also uses 802.11b technology to stream music from a PC to a stereo, or you can connect to the player via Ethernet or FireWire.

The box, about the size of a thick hardcover book, has a four-line LCD display (about 2.5cm x 10cm in size) for navigating through MP3 or Windows Media music files on your PC or Internet music sources, including Internet radio stations or the subscription Rhapsody music service. The MP101 is expected to be available in Australia at the end of February and will retail for $369.

D-Link Systems announced a more modest musiconly device, the Wireless Audio Kit, which is designed to replace speaker wires.

The kit uses 802.11a technology and features a transmitter that is connected to a home stereo, and a receiver that is connected to a pair of speakers. The kit supports the Dolby Digital 5.1 system often used in home theatres to pipe surround sound audio to five speakers and a subwoofer. D-Link expects the kits to be available in Australia early April.

All-in-one devices

D-Link, Linksys and Netgear also plan more ambitious devices that will transmit music, video, and still images. The idea isn’t new: Hauppage, HP, Sony, SMC Networks and others have all introduced similar products.

D-Link is readying a collection of wireless media players, one with a built-in DVD player and another with a 5-in-1 Flash Card Reader. Like most of these devices, D-Link’s players catalogue the digital music, video, and photos on your networked computers, then let you choose among them through an interface displayed on your TV.

D-Link’s wireless media players also provide access to streamed music through Radio@AOL.

D-Link is working with AOL to make the ISP’s You’ve Got Pictures service available through the player as well. D-Link will announce pricing when the players ship in April.

Linksys’ version, the DVD player with Wireless-G Media Link (WMLD54G), promises many of the same functions, although it won’t have special connections to AOL services.

The device was expected to be available in Australia by May or June and would sell for about $549, Linksys representatives said.

Netgear’s entry is slightly different. Instead of pulling content off your hard drive, the WGT634U Super Wireless Media Router lets you connect an external hard drive or other storage device directly to the router through a USB port. This lets you back up your music or images (or data files, for that matter) to the attached storage and make them available to any device on the network. You can also access the files remotely over the Internet.

But unlike the D-Link and Linksys products, which can plug directly into a stereo or television and stream content, content accessed through Netgear’s router must go through a device such as a PC that can decode it. The router uses 802.11g technology that’s been accelerated to operate at 108 megabits per second, twice the typical speed of 802.11g networks. The device is scheduled to become available in Australian stores in late March or early April. Along the same lines, Linksys is readying a bridge that allows users to connect an external USB hard drive to an existing router. The Storage Link should be available in Australia in the first half of this year, according to a Linksys representative.

Another approach

While Wi-Fi networks are popular, they aren’t the only way to transmit digital entertainment content throughout a home.

One unusual approach is to use FireWire technology. FireWire already has quality of service guidelines. This means video signals shouldn’t break up or stutter, because the network guarantees a certain amount of bandwidth to each video stream, according to Ram Balaraman, vicepresident of VividLogic, which writes software to control FireWire networks.

That’s an advantage over Wi-Fi networks, which don’t yet have quality of service standards (they are expected later this year). This means that while 802.11g networks have enough bandwidth to carry video signals, those signals can be interrupted by other data travelling on the same network.

Devices connected to a FireWire network are automatically detected and configured, another advantage over Wi-Fi, which sometimes requires mastering arcane networking terminology.

FireWire networks have a couple of drawbacks, however. Many PCs and other devices lack FireWire ports, although more new devices include them. Additionally, FireWire network cables must be strung. But Balaraman said you could skirt that problem by running a FireWire network via the coaxial TV cables that are probably already installed in your home.

That arrangement provided less bandwidth than a completely FireWire network, but was still sufficient for video, he said.

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