31
Mar
10

The State of Media Player

Home entertainment is in the midst of a transformation that may give consumers the ability to truly watch and listen to what they want when they want. I am, of course, describing the media center appliance, an appliance-like unit that marries to one’s home entertainment system and allows for multimedia content from various sources (traditional cable, home file server via TCP/IP network, VCR, DVD etc) to be utilized as the user chooses. These media players have been around in one form or another since VGA ports started commonly appearing on the back of TV sets over almost a decade ago. The problem has been two-fold: the UI (user interface) and the content control.

User interface design (or HCI) is a study of reducing and simplifying the number of visual cues required for humans to quickly and easily accomplish computer-based tasking. Without going into great description, it would suffice to say that the efforts the market has seen so far have been mediocre, at best. Too often (as in Microsoft’s “Media Center” and “Home Server” products) the products introduced are nothing more than sophomoric regurgitations of existing products (MS Media Center used a re-factored XP) — often performing some of the key features of a media appliance as though it were a “bolt-on” or an after-thought.

Media control is likely the largest factor in the glacial pace that the innovation of the media appliance has taken. Media rights groups (MPAA, RIAA, etc) feel a concern that copyrighted and trademarked materials will be abused if the media player mfgs are not compelled to design equipment that respects the digital rights of media creators. The reality is these greedy media pigs are probably more of an impediment to a meaningful solution than any sort of catalyst. There is no doubt digital rights need to be preserved, however, at a time when we are seeing intellectual property in other realms (i.e., pharma, bio, medicine, agri, etc) be afforded shorter windows of exclusivity it would seem daft and out-of-step not to see similar considerations made on multimedia properties as well.

Presently, I am using an AppleTV, a stripped down PC and a Sonos unit (ZP120) and I like them all. That said, I wish I could have the features each has in one box/appliance. The AppleTV works well for me however, the fact it will play only Quicktime MOV, MP3 and M4V make it less than a complete solution. Apple stupidly made iTunes the “sync-n-add” mechanism for the AppleTV rather than having the Apple TV unit operate with a web interface on-board to manage these all load and organize tasks. This was an odd mistake for Apple – only further demonstrating that even those with good track records in providing consumer electronics have not had a winner here yet.

The Sonos is a real winner and – if it had a means to offer video as well – would likely be my choice. However, it does not — leaving the product a good match only for my sound (not visual) needs.

The stripped down PC is by far the most useful but the least easy to use. The keyboard and mouse (std.io) is clunky and a piss-poor match for the needs one has in a home entertainment landscape.  No matter – sometimes you have to do what you have to do.

BTW, if any of you have good things to say about any and all media server/centers please feel free to embellish in comments.  I would love to get some insights from others on this topic.

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