Wireless Digital Devices

The Digital Living Network Alliance has tried to classify the major product types of a convergent entertainment network. Its developed categories are instructional. The first classification is Digital Home Server (DHS) devices.

DHS devices create content, provide storage and access capabilities, and allow copyright protection while maintaining a standard digital home interoperability model (which is to be developed).

DHS devices are characterized by component and user service management capabilities in a rich user/ network interface, the built-in intelligence to respond to events, and media management. Some DHS devices include:

  • Advanced set-top boxes.
  • Personal Video Recorders.
  • PCs.
  • Stereo and home theaters with hard disk drives.
  • Broadcast tuners.
  • Video and imaging capture devices, such as cameras and camcorders.
  • Multimedia mobile phones.

The second device category is Digital Home Rendering (DHR) devices. DHR components play content and render or display content. DHR devices include:

  • TV monitors.
  • Stereo and home theaters.
  • Printers.
  • PDAs.
  • Multimedia mobile phones.
  • Wireless monitors.
  • Game consoles.

The first step in building a wireless home entertainment network is to determine the places where wireless technology makes sense and can offer value. The most logical possibilities are the following:

  • At your incoming broadband connection (most typically cable or DSL) with a wireless router. You might choose to select this location if you want to have an entirely wireless network, or if your incoming broadband connection is in a place that isn’t easily wired to your main network.

Examples of products in this category are the D-Link DI-624, Linksys Wireless-G WRT56G, and the Netgear WGT624. These products give you the functionality of a router, a hub, and some firewall capabilities.

It’s even possible to find wireless cable modems such as the Motorola SURFboard Wireless Cable Modem Gateway SBG1000, although many ISPs require their own modems be used and managed remotely.

Motorola SURFboard Wireless Cable Modem Gateway SBG1000

  • At an Ethernet hub with an access point. This location provides support for mobile devices in a location where a wired network can be connected to your entertainment network.
  • At a pair of Ethernet hubs with two access points in a bridging configuration. A bridge would serve as a wire replacement for the connection of your entertainment network and your computer network.
  • At important central control devices such as a digital media receiver or home theater TV. This location provides wireless support for mobile devices at the center of your entertainment network.

TVs and Set-Top Boxes

Many modern TVs, especially ones that are HDTV or HDTV-ready, are intended as stand-alone systems. They come with a set of connections that any receiver might be proud of. Some can be set up to be a surround sound system on their own with a set of built-in speakers that create the front sound stage.

The idea is that you add a subwoofer to get the bass response. Because many HDTV manufacturers create integrated displays, the obvious next step might be to add networking capabilities.

At the moment, most people create a surround sound theater system by connecting an HDTV to their surround sound receiver, thus defeating the purpose of the internal speakers and amplification provided by their TVs.

Today’s home entertainment networks have a lot of redundant parts, so let’s hope future choices will be more modular. The current choices for cabling on HDTVs are optical connections (best quality) and RCA connections. Video can be S-Video, component video, DVI, or on some sets FireWire (IEEE 1394).

Component video gives reasonably good video display, FireWire is better, and there seems to be growing consensus that DVI will be the emerging high-end standard.

If you choose to use a computer as your tuner, most of these connections are offered by a good tuner card and/or a breakout box. To date there are no TVs that are networkable because manufacturers have chosen to put that capability in set-top boxes, receivers, DVD players, and other components.

Faster wireless networks may mean that a high-quality video signal can be transmitted, which might lead to networked TVs. A cable modem is one of the places on the network where you can have control capabilities built in and where you might be able to wirelessly control an entertainment network.

A cable modem is not a set-top box or cable channel selector. The cable modem’s function is to provide digital services such as Internet access. Most cable companies will let you substitute your own cable modem, although some will not. It’s best to check with your provider if you decide to install your own.

cable service may offer a variety of set-top boxes, both analog and digital. There is a growing trend to push consumers to digital services as soon as the infrastructure allows. Comcast, for example, will stop showing many movie channels on its analog cable packages, so analog services’ days are probably numbered.

Although a small handful of wireless cable boxes are available, no cable company I know of offers them. If you want to incorporate a device like the Motorola SURFboard(r) Wireless Cable Modem Gateway SBG1000 shown earlier into your entertainment network, you will need to do so yourself.

The world of set-top boxes offers a unique opportunity to computer vendors, and everyone from Microsoft (with the Windows CE operating system), to Linux, to Sun with Java wants to penetrate this market.

Set-top boxes are computers, and whether they include an embedded real-time operating system, Linux, Windows CE, or something else, it’s clearly a great place to embed intelligent functionality to run a home entertainment network. The next generation of set-top boxes will be computers with storage capabilities.

Depending on the components you have in your system, most entertainment networks connect a set-top box either directly to the TV, as a pass through in a home theater arrangement through a surround sound receiver, or as a pass through from a PVR (such as ReplayTV, TiVo, or a computer with those capabilities).

The digital Motorola High Definition Cable Receiver DCT5100 that is attached to the author’s HDTV is a good example of a next-generation set-top box that comes with three USB connections, a smart card interface, and an Ethernet port.

The set-top box arena is one of the most actively contested device categories in the entire entertainment networking area, and with good reason.

Whoever controls the set-top market can control the content and capabilities of your system. You should pay particular attention to advances in settop boxes; there’s a lot at stake in this arena.

You can choose many equipment types as a starting place when you want to wirelessly integrate components into a home entertainment network. Although a device like a wireless surround sound receiver with a built-in cable modem and firewall is a good starting place, if you were actually able to find one, chances are you wouldn’t want it.

First, any highly integrated device like that locks you into a specific blend of technologies in any area that is still in flux. More importantly, budgets and your evolving needs will probably limit what you can buy, but thankfully not necessarily what you can accomplish over time.

When you are done you still should be able to manage and access music, photos, and movies on your network. So how do you make good choices?

Faced with choices, you should do what smart people and companies have always done: adopt standards. Home entertainment networks are often on the bleeding edge of technology, but you don’t have to be. It’s much smarter to be a little behind the curve on technology.

Buying the second or third iteration of a device type once it matures can save you a lot of cost and grief. That buying philosophy would mean that you selected VHS instead of Betamax, DVDs instead of laser disks, and for wireless networking, 802.11g instead of 802.11b.

You don’t always choose the best technology, but often you will end up with something that is more useful. The old adage is true: you always can tell who the pioneers were—they are the ones with arrows in their backs.

There has been much discussion about the merits of one 802.11x protocol versus another. The experience for streaming large media files seems to be that 802.11b is adequate for streaming music and small photos, but it is not fast enough for moving large video files around conveniently.

The current preference for any system with video capabilities is 802.11g. You should also be wary of any wireless device that claims backward compatibility with an earlier protocol, and test that claim.

An access point that is supposedly compatible with 802.11b/g may really be worthwhile only as a 802.11g network and have lackluster performance and range with an earlier 802.11b device.

Integrating new technology to create a hybrid network containing personal computers and consumer electronics is hard enough; if you can limit your compatibility issues you can save yourself time and trouble.

Adopt one vendor’s product line based on a review or testing and try to stick with its products. We would like to believe that products from the same vendor should be known and tested to play well together.

Another advantage is that any vendor’s products, such as D-Link’s AirPremier AG Tri-Mode Dualband 802.11a/b/g or any other product that offers you “EXTREME-G”, “MEGA-A”, or “ULTIMA-G” are proprietary and are going to give you something like the speed they advertise only when they are connected to other products from that vendor.

Vendors use proprietary techniques to go beyond current standards, techniques that aren’t going to work with other vendors’ products (most likely). So if you are extending the range of this particular access point, you would need to purchase the DWL-G650 wireless repeater because without that unit you can’t get above the normal limit of 54 Mbps in your extended range.

The same applies to any NIC (network interface card) that you install in your laptop or desktop (which for this particular series would be D-Link’s DWL-AG650 or DWL-AG530). We chose these specific products just for the sake of illustration; other good choices are available.