Home is where the Entertainment is

Published Date
01 - Dec - 2004
| Last Updated
01 - Dec - 2004
 
Home is where the Entertainment is

You might just end up saying this as digital home entertainment brings the boom and the thunder of the movies into your drawing room


The “movie-outing,” as it is called, has traditionally been the primary mode of entertainment. The large screen, the surround sound experience entertains brilliantly—practically making you a part of the picture. But now with the convergence of different technologies, you can get quite close to the same ambience in the comfort of your living room.

With the universal remote in your hand, a bowl of popcorn in your lap, and your favourite armchair as your companion, you can control the way you are entertained. Significant developments pertaining to surrounding digital homes and convergence in the last year have made them a reality after the years of hype around them. Here’s a list of factors that have made digital home entertainment come true:

  • High-performance processors and graphics
  • Low cost storage
  • Acceptance of WiFi
  • Media Center PCs
  • Falling prices of LCDs and flat-panel displays
  • Wide acceptance of digital cameras and camcorders
  • Acceptance of smart devices including cell     phones and PDAs
  • Ease of sharing data: Bluetooth, memory cards, PictBridge

Enough of theory. Let’s zoom right into  devices that convert your home into a no-nonsense entertainment zone.

Media Center PCs   

A PC can masquerade as an entertainment device-to play music, games, etc. However, if you are looking at home entertainment, then you need a large television set, a HiFi stereo system and a movie player. A single contraption called the Media Center PC takes care of all this! Aptly described as putting the PC in the living room, Microsoft describes it as a digital media hub that combines all entertainment choices and lets you access them via a single remote control.

Its key features include mid to high-end processors, adequate memory, high-capacity hard drives, advanced graphics and audio, optical drives and networking capabilities. It may also include a remote controller, a TV tuner and hardware encoder to capture and record TV signals, and TV and digital audio outputs to integrate with your TV and home theatre.

The Media Center software displays entertainment
options in a ‘10-foot User interface’


HCL Infosystems was the first Indian vendor to announce the launch of a Media Center PC in late 2003. Its latest model features an Intel P4 2.66 GHz CPU with 256 MB DDR RAM, an 80 GB hard drive along with a combo drive. Priced close to Rs 70,000, it has a full-featured Media Center remote control and Altec Lansing ATP3 2.1 speakers.

Other options in India include offerings from AOpen, MSI and HP. A recently announced model from HP boasts of running Windows XP Media Center Edition on an Intel P4 3.2 GHz CPU with the latest Intel 915P chipset to power high-definition video and audio. Also featuring an inbuilt wireless 802.11 b/g with a soft access point, it includes a 160 GB SATA hard drive, an 8X double-layer DVD Writer and a 9-in-1 digital media reader. However, it may be at least another three months before this model is introduced in India.



Media Center Software

The software bundled displays all entertainment options in a simple interface, called the 10-foot User interface, since you can manipulate it via a remote control from that distance. Below are entertainment options that accompany a superior Media Center software:
1. TV
2. Scheduled recording of TV signal
3. Pause live-TV
4. Music organisation and playback
5. Video/movie playback
6. FM Tuner
7. Picture mode with slideshow

Some of the software that offer the above functionalities are:

Windows XP Media Center Edition

This Windows XP-variant provides a range of entertainment options in a unified interface. Wizards help you set up the media center, calibrate your display device and set up TV input from a cable, antenna, satellite or set-top box. An enhanced 16:9 visual support, adaptive de-interlacing and video-scaling, automatic guide updates, parental controls, and storage management for recorded content provides complete control. However, the Media Center Edition only comes pre-installed on PC systems.

Intervideo Home Theatre

Known for its WinDVD software, Intervideo  offers a not-too-innovative nomenclature of Home Theatre. The package converts your PC into a VCR, DVD player, photo album, radio and music box.

CyberLink PowerCinema

It supports movies, music and pictures as well as TV and Radio in the TV Plus Edition. Features include a Favourite List Manager for stations and a 12-station preview to ease channel-surfing.

The DIY approach
You don’t really need to spend your money on readymade solutions to have Media Center capabilities. If you own a decently configured PC (a P4 processor, 256 MB of DDR memory, a large capacity 7200-rpm hard drive, a DVD-ROM/Combo/DVD-Writer), you can easily convert it to a media center PC.

All you require is a decent TV-tuner card with a bundled remote, FM tuner and compatible software. Just plug in the TV tuner, install the drivers and software, and scan for channels. That’s it, your own Personal Video Recorder  solution is ready to entertain you!


Showshifter

This package offers features such as pausing live-TV, digital video-recording, electronic program guide, home-networking compatibility, DVD playback, remote-control compatibility, music jukebox and CD player functionalities-all in a single and easy-to-use interface.

Apart from the above, most TV tuner cards are bundled with remote controllers and software that can accomplish at least some of the above tasks.

Displays

Home entertainment is not complete without a proper display. It can be your CRT or LCD monitor, or a regular TV. Opt for the large screen rear-projection TV or a Plasma TV display for the ‘inhouse’ theatre ambience. Plasma and LCD displays are now available in sizes never thought possible. LCD and Plasma are actually two different display technologies, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. 

LCDs use a fluorescent backlight to send light through the liquid crystal molecules and a polarising substrate. A voltage applied to red, green and blue pixels via a wire mesh darkens the pixels and thus, prevents the backlight from showing through.

In Plasma screens, a network of pixels—each comprising red, green and blue phosphors—is mounted between two thin glass layers. Small electrical pulses excite the rare natural gases argon, neon and xenon to produce colour information and light. Once the phosphors are excited, oxygen atoms dissipate and emit ultraviolet light.

LCD TVs are thinner and lighter, but offer limited viewing angles. However, unlike Plasma displays, they consume lesser power and do not suffer from screen burn-in effects.

Opt for a projector to create a
theatrical ambience


A viable option is the multi-function display, which functions as a PC monitor and a TV as well. Samsung, LG and Philips offer you a number of options in this segment. Samsung has a 15-inch LCD TV model priced around Rs 35,000, while 17-inch models start from Rs 60,000. The 17-inch model from Samsung is also HDTV-ready, making it future-proof.   



Speakers

A good speaker set should blast off sound that fills your senses and overwhelms you—be it music, movies, or games. Though stereo and even 2.1 speakers should be fine for standard usage, opt for a 4.1 and above for a complete sound experience. Do make sure you get the speaker placement right, so that you have true surround effect. Choose from premium brands such as Creative, Altec Lansing, Logitech and Philips, to Indian brands such as Frontech, Intex, Odyssey etc.

While a decent 4.1 speaker system costs anywhere between Rs 2,000 to Rs 3,500, do expect to shell out around Rs 3,000 to Rs 20,000 for a 5.1 set. Then there are the 6.1 and 7.1 speaker systems for the true audiophile. Creative is the most popular brand here: opt for their Inspire range if affordability is your concern, and the MegaWorks range if you do not want to settle for anything less than high-class sound quality.

Home Projectors

LCD and Digital Light Processing (DLP) projectors have been around for a while now and served dutifully in corporate environments, boardrooms and at presentations. However, decreasing prices and reduced sizes make them worthwhile for use in a home theatre setup.

DLP projectors use a thumbnail-sized semiconductor called Digital Micromirror Device (DMD) that comprises over a million microscopic mirrors that move back and forth around 5000 times per second. Working in conjunction with a lamp, colour wheel and projections lens, they reflect a digital image onto a screen. As compared to LCD, DLP technology is rated to be better as it provides higher contrast, sharper images, better motion reproduction, and consistent image quality.

While buying a projector, pay attention to the brightness and the image quality offered. Brightness is measured in ANSI lumens. For home theatre projectors, this typically ranges from 700 to 2,000 lumens. Use higher brightness projectors when the ambient light in the room is more than adequate. Rooms with controlled lighting require lower brightness projectors. As for image quality, look at resolution and brightness uniformity.

Look for an XGA or WXGA resolution projector with a uniformity rating of around 85 per cent. Canon, Epson, and HP have models catering to the home segment. In fact, HP’s new ep9012 features an integrated DVD player, a subwoofer and 2.1 surround sound. You can play DVDs straight from the projector, with support for DVD±R/RW, VCD, SVCD, CD-R/RW, CD-audio and MP3 playback. The ep9012 is not yet available in India, but is expected to be introduced soon. Price? Hmm, good question! We await HP’s answer to that!

Home Theatre Systems

While a PC-based setup may offer you a lot of flexibility as far as entertainment choices are concerned, a home theatre system can also be a good option. Home theatres have been around for ages. The big brands here include Sony, Samsung, Philips, and LG. In case you do not have decent speakers and a big display, you can hook up your PC to a home theatre system and your existing TV and play music and movies on the PC.



Apart from the cost, do remember to consider the video and audio formats (most support MP3 playback) supported by the home theatre, along with the type of media. The Philips DVD/SACD Home Theatre System LX3900SA supports a variety of formats including Divx, MPEG4, MP3 and Picture CD. Supported media includes DVD±RW, DVD±R, CD-R, CD-RW, and SACD Multichannel.

Deepak DhingraDeepak Dhingra