Touchscreens and Media Servers - The New Standard in Home Entertainment


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Home entertainment systems have come a long way since you ooh' ed and ahh'ed because your neighbor had a few pairs of speakers that actually fit flush into his walls. That's old news now. Even homes in comparatively modest new developments are being outfitted with a full complement of audio, network, TV and telephone wiring. In many developments the builder offers a standard wiring package and various upgrades for additional wiring, speakers, wiring enclosures and even full control systems.

Systems have evolved to include sleek, wall-mounted touch screens that allow simple access to your music and other house functions such as security, lighting, HVAC, and motorized window treatments. A talented programmer can make these systems function with true 'one touch' simplicity. It's almost as if they're reading your mind.

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The touch screen's advantage is that it can change the control interface to only show what you need at any one time. This affords tremendous flexibility while retaining the simplicity people desire. The touch screen interface is extremely powerful when combined with another technology that has come into prominence recently; the hard disc based media server. Your CDs are downloaded, or ripped, onto a hard drive. This combination allows your entire music catalog to be displayed on the touch screen for easy searching. You can typically search by artist, song title, genre, or album. Once the desired selection is located, you just touch it on the screen and it begins to play.

These hard drive servers use computer hard drives and modern compression techniques to store phenomenal amounts of music in a simple audio component less than half the size of a 200 disc CD changer. They function just like a typical CD player, not your computer, so they are reliable and easy to use.

Media servers have exploded in popularity recently because of the enormous popularity of compressed music formats such as MP3 and the fantastic array of functionality a disc based system allows. For those who have, or do, own CD mega changers, a hard drive music server will be like a breath of fresh air.

Access to any song is typically less than a second away. Contrast that to selecting disc 94 in your 300-disc CD changer when you are playing disc 201. With a multi-room audio system, you may be on the other side of your house trying to do this with a keypad or remote control. The wait for your changer to return the disc it was playing then trundle the carousel around to your desired disc can seem like an eternity.

Another advantage is easy cataloging. Most hard drive systems will recognize any CD you insert for ripping and if they don't, they are connected to the internet for access to a giant database. This they access automatically to gather artist, album and track information. Gone are the days of using a keyboard or remote to tediously enter the information about your CDs into a CD changer. You can also stop worrying about which slot your discs are in. 'Let's see, was Led Zeppelin IV in slot 90 or 190'' Using a hard drive server frees up your CDs for use elsewhere such as your car, boat or vacation home.

In addition, since your CDs are not locked up in a changer, your collection is able to be enjoyed by many members of the family at once. With a changer, if someone is listening to it, all of the discs inside it are basically off limits. With a changer, not only are your CDs free for use in other locations but many hard drive servers provide multiple audio outputs.

Multiple outputs enable you to listen to different discs in different areas of the house if your system is so configured. For example, one person could be listening to Korn in the rec room while Bach's Requiem is being played in the kitchen and Dire Straights in the bedroom. With a conventional CD changer, this is impossible.

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You can also buy and store music from many online music services and store those on your hard drive server. Hard drive servers offer advantages over music files stored on a computer as well. Because they function like a traditional audio component, they are easier to use for many people. It is also easier to integrate them with touch screen based home control systems. This will begin to change as the popularity of multimedia PCs such as those running Microsoft XP Media Center Edition 2005 increases.

These units are many steps closer to delivering the long promised 'convergence' between consumer electronics and computers. Multimedia PCs, also known as HTPCs [Home Theater PC] function as DVD players, personal video recorders (similar to a TiVO), and hard drive media storage.

They allow storage of digital photos for easy display on your TV or monitor. HTPCs can, of course, browse the net on your TV via your broadband connection. As hard drive storage becomes more economical and compression techniques become better, the storage of HD movies and HDTV programming will become commonplace.

Soon these types of servers and interfaces will become the norm rather than the exception. You'll think nothing of the amazing array of features offered and the ability to easily access your media collection throughout your home. Once a rarity, media servers, in one form or another, will be found in almost every home.

About the Author

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Steve has 15 yrs in electronics. He is a CEDIA certified designer with ISF and THX certificates. Experience includes: installer and programmer; system designer; business unit director for an a/v importer; sales rep for a CE distributor; and principal of a $1.5M+ CEDIA firm. He's now senior sales engineer for Digital Cinema Design in Redmond, WA. See him at The Home Theater and Automation Guide