Friday, September 01, 2006

What I learned at Fry's

I learned how important interconnects really are when my DVD player broke.

I am not a big power user of any of the deep tech EE Times stuff I write about for a living, so no surprise I hadn’t been to the audio section at Fry’s in three years.

I was shocked to find that now some DVD players on the shelf sport USB ports on the front—several selling for less than $250. The salesman was quick to point out they are for audio only.

My background at EE Times has taught me that’s because the big studios know their entire catalog of songs is already out on the Web without copy protection, so we might as well go ahead and play them. But they believe they can still prevent this from happening for their movie catalogues.

Interestingly, Samsung and JVC were the only vendors offering DVD players with USB on their front panels. Two companies had lots of products on the shelf noticeably without USB ports: Sony, which owns a studio, and Panasonic which is so big it needs to keep cozy relations with them.

I also noticed several DVD players now have flash card slots that accommodate many of the wealth of CompactFlash, SD, MMC, etc. cards out there. Cool. I’d love to play on my stereo the growing library of digital music I have on my computer, show my even larger library of photos on TV and maybe even play a DVD from my notebook on my TV.

But frankly, I don’t want to carry my laptop to the living room and hook a USB cable between it and my DVD player. And in 2006, I don’t want to play sneaker net carrying lots of USB flash drives and SD cards around the house, constantly uploading and downloading stuff. I did that with floppy drives when I started my career as a writer in the 1980’s.

I have Wi-Fi on my notebook and home PC and routed around my apartment. How about a DVD player supporting Wi-Fi?

The salesman took me over to a distant corner of the floor and high up, still in a box, pointed to a Yamaha receiver that uses Wi-Fi to link to Internet radio stations. No DVD player, no USB ports, no flash card slots, no way to link to my PC that I could see. And it cost $500.

I guess Wi-Fi is still to complicated, expensive and low quality for the $250 DVD player or home-theater-in-a-box setup. Anyway, I probably don’t want to hear my music mangled when it streams over Wi-Fi from my bedroom PC to my living room stereo. Worse, it would probably freak out every time someone turns on the microwave or uses the cordless phone.

So what’s the solution here? Ultrawideband? Smarter DVD players and receivers that connect to the Net with simple to use embedded computers? An interconnect with USB on one side and component audio/video on the other?

My DVD dilemma helped me realize this interconnect stuff sit right smack dab in the middle of a major revolution in digital media today. The DMZ is Fry’s. I’ll make a point of going back from time to time to check on progress—or lack thereof.

I'd love to hear your own real life experiences getting snared in the interconnect Web. --rbm


Brian said...


I'm glad you wrote this!

I still look at digital cameras and audio devices as computer peripherals. Without a computer they are useless...I can't hook an iPod to my stereo like a tape deck to record music. This has become a devil's bargain...if the computer must be at the center of all our media use we need simpler ways to store and transfer the data. An iPod is great when I'm away from home, but at home why can't I just stream from the computer to the stereo rather then dump the files to the iPod which I then plug into a cradle attached to the stereo?

At home today I have the following memory card formats in use: xD and Secure Digital for different digital cameras, Compact Flash and Smart Media for different audio devices. SM is all but obsolete (try to buy a card today) yet the device that uses it was bought in 2005!! This is in addition to the total lack of wireless interconnects that you mentioned.

The computer industry has a long way to go to really make this seamless. There are too many data formats and too many ways to store and transfer it. Meanwhile nobody is addressing the ugly issue of backing up all this digital data. I still have the negatives of photos I shot 40 years ago, I have vinyl LPs I bought 40 years ago but the photos and music I am accessing digitally today will vanish when the hard drive it resides on eventually crashes. How many backups do I need? How often in the future will I need to translate the data into a new format because new hardware and software won't play the old format?

As a consumer I find this rapid accleration of technology without industry wide standardization to be counter-productive. I have decided that until it all settles out (which may be years) I'm not adopting anything new, period.

Mark said...

I have heard wireless USB is coming. That would be a great way to wire surround sound speakers. You still would need power, but most houses are already wired for that. If only we had wireless electricity.