By Doug Bedell
The Dallas Morning News
For many, the act of moving camcorder video from computer to the home entertainment center is still handled by "sneakernet." Users simply dump edited projects onto a CD or DVD, then walk to the den with the disc.
But electronics makers want to change that. And thus has erupted a battle among products bridging the computer-to-television chasm.
The struggles have accelerated with the development of Wireless-G, or the 802.11g Wi-Fi standard.
Regular Wi-Fi, or 802.11b, was designed to stream computer data, not bulky, complicated video signals.
Wireless-G is theoretically more adept at moving DVD-quality video across the home at moderate distances. That's the reason Wireless-G radios are being built into DVD players, TVs and a set of products loosely known as "media adapters."
The first wave of Wireless-G equipment had problems. Early chipsets sometimes had a hard time handling the heavy video flow, dropping bits and pieces and producing sputtering images.
"It's a young technology, and it was made for data, too," said Lori McBride Travers, vice president of DigitalDeck, maker of software for home video networks. "It just didn't give priority to certain packets (of streaming data), and with video you really need that."
But Travers and other industry insiders say Wireless-G equipment is improving.
"It opens up a whole new world of options," said Joe Preza, technical marketing manager for D-Link, a home networking equipment leader.
Ultimately, the Internet-connected home computer may become the gateway for movie downloads and other entertainment. Currently, 17 percent of U.S. households with a PC also have a network, and about 40 percent of those are wireless, says research firm IDC. About 29 percent of households will be networked by 2006, the firm projects, and wireless should dominate.
Television makers are the latest to join the trend. Sharp, Philips and Sony are producing portable TVs that hook into home wireless networks to receive home movies and slide shows of digital images. Most are LCD sets from 12 to 23 inches.
First out was Sharp's Wireless Aquos LC-15L1U ($1,800), a battery-powered 15-inch screen with a built-in Wi-Fi card. Sharp recently expanded its Open Aquos line to include models with two PC card slots. The slots handle 802.11g cards and mini hard drive recorders that store and play back files.
Sony is readying its 12-inch Location-Free TV, which will receive radio transmissions in three popular flavors of Wi-Fi - 802.11a, b and g. And Philips has developed a Streamium 23-inch high-def LCD set with Wireless-G on board.
For the household entertainment center, you need equipment that can work with your components, orchestrating streams of video stored on the computer network. This is a growing field with lots of choices in the $150 to $250 range.
First, there's the networked DVD player. Gateway and Go-Video are among a handful of companies building Wireless-G connections into DVD players.
Setting up these machines can be confusing and may require adjusting your PC firewall, but the concept makes sense.
Then there are the media adapters. These devices are designed to fit into the entertainment center. Some, such as D-Link's DSM-320 Wireless Media Player, are flat metal boxes with remote controls. Once configured to join the household's Wireless-G network, they allow you to select PC music and video files to play, using an on-screen television menu.
The company is also coming out with models that include flash memory readers.
"Many people with digital cameras just want to view their pictures right away on the television, so that's a great convenience," said Preza.
The EZ-Stream Universal Wireless Multimedia Receiver - a slim, silver-and-blue upright unit that ties into 802.11a, b or g networks - is similar. But unlike the D-Link, the EZ-Stream does not come with optical audio outputs, and you can't manipulate the format of video coming in from the PC.
Prismiq goes further with its $250 MediaPlayer/Recorder, adding TiVo-like abilities by storing programming on your PC's hard drive or letting you move it to disc with a remote DVD burner. With a $50 optional keyboard, the Internet is accessible on the television with basic Web browsing and America Online instant messaging.
Finally, Netgear and Linksys are producing "media routers" that don't connect to a standard computer. Rather, they plug into external, portable USB 2.0 hard drives and send content over the Wireless-G network or via the Web. Together, the drive and router form a specialized unit that behaves like a PC.
The idea is that you can load all entertainment files into cheap, sub-$100 hard disks and save space on the home PC. Netgear's Super Wireless Media Router ($119) uses a supercharged version of Wireless-G that can push video and audio around the house at double the usual 54 megabits per second.
"As people start to really use digital video, they're going to need more capacity," saidavid James, Netgear product line manager. "I recently met a guy who had actually ripped 7 terabytes of video onto his hard drive. While that's obviously extreme, it does point up the need for hard drive space as we all get more involved."
© 2004, The Dallas Morning News.
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.