Was it really only 18 months ago that the idea of watching TV streamed over the internet to your PC seemed exotic?
The new TV landscape is about enjoying programmes however and wherever you want, whether on the big screen, your laptop in a hotel room, or on a portable media player - even on a mobile phone. But are you making the most of the opportunity? If the PC TV wave is passing you by, we're here to help you get up and ride it.
2008 will go down as the year internet TV went mainstream. Apple's iTunes Store proved we're willing to pay for premium TV content. BigPond's downloadable movies and TV, NineMSN's Catch-up TV, and ABC's iView showed there's potential in TV services that deliver programmes over the net.
Overseas, services such as the BBC's iPlayer captured the public imagination; a weekly average of 1.4 million viewers use the service. While Australia is a little behind the pace, we're catching up fast.
Internet services are only part of the modern TV arsenal. Media centres, streaming devices, portable players and mobile phones can all be used to ensure you never miss a TV show again - even if you're out of the country. Better still, turning a PC into a PVR and media server has never been easier.
We're going to show you how to have the perfect TV setup at home, away, and while you're travelling in between. Plus, we'll explain how to beat the roadblocks that are put in your path, such as bans on watching iView from abroad and watching TV recorded in Microsoft's proprietary formats on devices such as mobile phones and PSPs. You'll never have to leave your TV at home again.
TV in the Home
For most of us, the living room remains the main place where we watch TV; what's new is the way we watch it. The success of TiVo in the US has finally resulted in TiVo being launched in Australia, though uptake is slower than expected thus far. It's introduced us to a world where you no longer organise your life around the TV schedules, but select and record what you want to watch then do so at your leisure.
The personal video recorder (PVR) certainly has its advantages. It's significantly cheaper than, say, a media-centre PC, and is usually smaller and quieter. What's more, these are machines built for anyone to use. Using the Media Center features built into Vista isn't exactly brain surgery, but TiVo makes recording and viewing programmes virtually moron-proof.
However, there are good reasons to opt for a PC-based setup. The biggest is that, once you've recorded something on a TiVo or Foxtel IQ2 box it's pretty much trapped there; Foxtel's proprietary storage and encryption systems mean that, even were you to remove the hard disk and try to mount it on your PC, you wouldn't be able to drag off your programmes.
The only way to move your content from a Foxtel IQ2 box on to your PC is to copy it to a conventional DVD recorder, PC or standalone video-capture device. This involves a digital to analogue to digital conversion, and subsequent loss of quality, not to mention a long wait while your programmes copy across in real-time.
Foxtel; isn't alone in slapping on the handcuffs. With the exception of the Topfield TF5000, TF7100 and TF7000, which allow a direct transfer of MPEG2 video files over USB to PC/Mac or external hard drive, most standard and Freeview PVRs have no means of copying or archiving recordings.
This isn't a problem if you only want to watch recorded shows and films on your PVR, but it is if you want to archive them, store them on a central server, or watch them on another device in or outside the home. If that's the case a PC-based approach is the answer. You can use it as a gateway for all your digital content, which you then stream to wherever it's needed.
The perfect PC TV setup
First of all, you'll need a PC. You can buy a specific media-centre PC - either an all-in-one model that replaces the TV in smaller living rooms, such as Sony's VGC-LM18G or HP's TouchSmart IQ515, or a compact, low-noise unit that works alongside a regular HDTV.
A media-centre PC is a perfectly good choice, but often expensive. The cheaper alternative is to repurpose an existing PC or buy/build a new one as a media gateway. You can then sequester it somewhere out of the way where you still have an aerial socket or satellite cable, plus a network connection.
You'll need the former to take the incoming TV signal, and the latter to grab internet-based content and then stream your video where it's needed. Your PC will also need a TV tuner card (either DVB-T or DVB-S, depending on whether you want to hook up to a DVB-T Freeview signal or a DVB-S satellite one) and a version of Windows Vista that includes Media Center: Vista Home Premium or Ultimate. Alternatively, you could use Orb MyTV (which we'll discuss later).
The connection is a vital part of the picture. For home networking, most of us still rely on an 802.11g network. Theoretically, this supports the 8 to 10Mb/s of steady bandwidth you need to stream HD video, but in practice a busy 802.11g network struggles with even standard-definition pictures.
The newer 802.11 draft-n standard is much better. With a possible bandwidth of 74 to 300Mb/s, it should have plenty of overhead for multiple HD streams. If you opt for a dual-band router, you can stream your AV data on the 5.2GHz spectrum, avoiding interference from slower gadgets on your network, which can use the 2.4GHz spectrum.
In practice, however, there's still a chance that it might struggle. The more PCs or other devices you have connected, the greater distance covered or the more walls you have between your source PC, your router, and playback devices, the less smooth your TV experience will be.
A wired ethernet connection is the obvious choice. It doesn't have to be Gigabit ethernet - even if your router supports it, it's unlikely that your current media playback devices will - but going Gigabit now will offer a degree of future-proofing.
However, installing cable through several rooms isn't always an option without some serious home refurbishment, so you may need to consider an alternative. The HomePlug AV Ethernet over Powerline standard offers a maximum 200Mb/s over the existing power cables in your home, and dual-adapter packs are now available for well below $300. It's worth keeping in mind, though, that to work well, the adapters all need to be on the same electrical circuit.
|Some Topfield players such as the TF7100 can copy video files to from external hard disk via USB.