September 13, 2006

I do own a television. During the week I usually watch about an hour's worth of TV a day, give or take. Beside the TV is a small storage unit with about 50 DVD boxes, many of which contain season box sets of TV shows I really like. Beneath the TV is a cable box and digital video recorder (DVR) that I rent from Comcast. Wouldn't it be nice if I could bring all my media together and save money too?

MovieLink started streaming movies over the Internet as early as four years ago. Apple started selling TV show episodes through iTunes last year. Earlier this month, my employer Amazon started selling both movies and music through its new Unbox service; Apple quickly followed suit this last week with its movie offering through iTunes. Meanwhile, my hopes for a good HDTV DVR system were bolstered by the release of TiVo's widely-anticipated Series3 recorder which can record high-definition programs from any of the cable channels I receive.

Here's my take on the options currently available for media boxes compared to the Comcast DVR and DVD player that I already have.

Apple's iTV Prototype

For the year I was in my house in Pittsburgh, I used an Airport Express to stream music from my computer to a stereo receiver across the room, which in turn sent the music to speakers mounted on the walls. Earlier this week, to no one's surprise, Apple unveiled its successor to the Airport Express: the iTV prototype, which allows video to be streamed from an iTunes-equipped computer to a TV. Little is known for sure about the $300 device that's set to hit stores in the first quarter of next year -- even the name is subject to change -- but many people are eyeing it as a bridge from their PC to their television.

Pros: HDMI port for output, integrates with iTunes on any Windows or Mac computer, no ongoing fees, good (and still growing) selection of TV shows in iTunes

Cons: Not available until "Q1 2007," details not known about quality or compatibility with media ripped from DVDs, probably won't work with streaming media services for live video

Windows Media Center

Microsoft is trying to counter Apple's stranglehold on the media market with a distributed approach similar to the one it used against the PalmPilot: opening its platform to a number of stores selling everything from mainstream movies to baseball highlight films. Amazon's own Unbox software is effectively a thin wrapper around Windows Media Player and Internet Explorer, leading some of my coworkers to try either streaming movies to an Xbox 360 (as a Windows Media Center Extender) or playing them right onto the TV from a Windows PC. I could also subscribe to Major League Baseball's TV service, which is only compatible with Windows Media Player, to have live game access.

Pros: Lower media prices and better selection than iTunes for movies, compatible with streaming services like MLB.TV

Cons: Requires substantial expense even for a PC minimally capable of HDTV output, not all Windows apps have a remote-friendly interface, lackluster selection of TV shows

TiVo Series3

As a TiVo stockholder I was excited to see that TiVo's much-awaited HDTV model is finally available. The beefy, high-end model costs a whopping $800 and must be purchased with service at about $13 a month. On top of that, I'll have to continue paying Comcast fees for cable service and for the two CableCARDs I'll need to make the DVR work at its peak. On the other hand, TiVo has a great reputation for usability and software quality, and the selection of programming is virtually unparalleled.

Pros: Tons of programming, including live HDTV, served over two tuners; some home media sharing features; can record programs automatically based on preferences to fill hard drive space; designed with a TV interface from the ground up

Cons: The most expensive option with total upkeep costs approaching $1,000 per year; limited avenues for streaming my own content to the TV; most of the content is of no interest to me

MythTV

The open source option is tempting in its openness. With no commercial influences to impose DRM or other limiting technologies, MythTV has a wealth of features that other DVRs have purposefully left out, such as automatic commercial skipping. (My old ReplayTV unit could do that and it was great when it worked.) Of course, as a free software product, there's also no company to go crying to when things break.

Pros: Compatible with any media type Linux can play, which is almost anything without DRM; zillions of plugins to do everything from weather to automatic BitTorrent downloads; strong user community; automatically skips commercials; no monthly fee

Cons: Virtually no commercial support or pre-built devices; HDTV-capable device can be expensive; lack of CableCARD support means no recording of digital cable channels

The Conclusion: Nothing Yet

At this point I'm prepared to continue paying Comcast the promotional rate they're charging through the end of the year while catching live sporting events (especially the baseball playoffs) in full HDTV quality. Perhaps competition will force prices lower and/or quality higher on all fronts of the battle for my living room. The added wait-and-see appeal of two forthcoming operating systems (Windows Vista and Mac OS X 10.5 "Leopard") means I'm not buying another computer until next year anyway. Fortunately I can already start putting together a better home theater system including surround sound to be ready for whatever comes out. There's also that whole high-definition movie disc format war that I haven't even touched on yet.