I've been thinking about overhauling my use of technology lately. Most of that is in the form of media consumption - music, television, movies, books, etc. (Side note: This seems to be a good place to plug my article on Saving Money on Movies, Music, Television, and Books - plugged!) Why would I overhaul everything? As my old manager at a tech start-up was fond of saying, "Technology is too difficult for most people." He said it ten years ago and for the most part things haven't changed.
I love technology, and my degree in computer science probably puts me in the upper range of being able to deal with difficult technology. However, I have to agree with my boss. Technology's very nature, to be cutting edge, makes creating an easy-to-use polished product rare. Apple is one company that is great at making technology work well, but it comes at a tremendous price. That price is an article for another day. For now, let's get back to the technology overhaul.
My Media Problem
Our Netflix movie this week highlights one of the issues that we have with our current media set-up. The movie, my wife's choice, is Sex and the City 2. Perhaps it is my Y chromosome, but I'm not interested in the movie at all. It is also a sequel to a movie that I haven't seen and also have no interest in seeing. Alas, we have one DVD player for our two TVs and that's on the "good" TV with the cable box and all our DVR'd shows. Ideally we'd want to be able play movies, DVR shows, etc. on either of our televisions. Comcast allows you to do this, but you have to buy another cable box with more monthly fees. I don't want to pay subscription fees for the rest of my life for this functionality. More importantly, I shouldn't have to since Comcast's monthly service is the initial delivery of the shows. Once I've received them, I should be allowed to watch them everywhere it is technologically possible.
Adding TouchPads in the Mix
With two televisions, things haven't been very complicated. However, I can imagine them getting more complicated very soon. Tomorrow I have a couple of $99 Touchpads arriving at my house. One for me and one for my wife. The TouchPad can be used for a number of things (such as a dedicated blogging environment), but one can imagine them being a portable television. It could have movies or television shows downloaded on it, or it could use the WiFi connection to stream them over the Internet. The catch here is that I couldn't legally use it for my Netflix account (since I don't own the DVDs and I'm just renting them), but I could do them for 7 seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Due to limited space on the TouchPads, I wouldn't store music there, but if I could put them on a hard drive that is connected to my network that would give me the ability to watch them from anywhere around the house - even outside in a hammock. Likewise, I could stream them while I'm away from home at a hotel - or even on the plane if it has wifi. I wouldn't limited to video either, it should be able to stream audio too.
As you can tell, things get very complicated, very quickly.
Another Objective... Make it Pretty
As if that wasn't enough, I have another goal, to make the solution as aesthetically pleasing as possible. This means that I can't have a big hulking computer near the television with 1,000 cords coming from it. Currently, I have a cable box, a cable modem, a wireless router, Ooma for my Free Lifetime Phone Service for $150!, cordless telephone system that uses the Ooma, a Wii, a tower desktop computer, and a DVD player. That's all around the television. Each device typically has two or more cords - one for the power and one for the communication. With the 8 devices (9 with the TV itself), it is an ugly mess. I don't like how it looks, so you can imagine how my wife feels about it.
That said, I realize how difficult this is going to be, so I'll sacrifice some beauty for functionality.
The Technology Overhaul Ground Rules
Before I go into my
plan chaotic, rambling course of action, it makes sense to put down a few ground rules. My solution, like everything in my life, has to fit a budget. That means I can't spend $2000 to get a new computer with the latest bells and whistles if I could get buy for $500. I can't bring in an audio-video consultant or use any specialty equipment they might have for the solution. I can't replace my television, which works perfectly fine for a version that has Netflix (or any other service built-in as a way to limit devices.
Finally, my wife should be able to use the solution with as little additional hassle as possible. It should work almost the same as turning on the television and changing the channel today.
Version 0.1 of the Technology Overhaul
(Prepare for chaotic rambling...)
Here are the devices and solutions, I'm looking at and why I'm looking at them:
- Media Center or Home Theater PC (HTPC) - I'm looking to get something like the Dell Zino. It is the right size to reduce clutter. There are versions that have Blu-Ray and versions with a Quad-core AMD processor. The Blu-Ray option eliminates my need for a DVD player and takes full advantage of my HDTV with 1080P resolution. While the AMD isn't my ideal choice, it should be powerful enough to be a focal point of the system. I'll probably also stress it a bit by converting my existing DVD collection (and probably upcoming Blu-Ray media) into 1024x768 resolution for play on the TouchPad.
The HTPC is also going to be the source of streaming options such as Netflix, Hulu, MLB.TV and NFL Sunday Ticket (which I'll probably cave and pay the $350 for the season to save on bar expenses).
I saw one of these on Craigslist for $450 yesterday, but I didn't act fact enough and when I called the seller it was gone. It put me in a bad mood, because Dell doesn't have any Zino's on their site that are both Blu-Ray and Quad-core. I thought I had missed my chance until a couple of minutes ago. I was able to find what seems to have been the last one in the Dell Outlet store with a better processor and double the memory (8GBs vs. 4GBs) for around $550 including taxes and 1-yr warranty (a steal at $6). If you are looking for a similar deal, I suggest that you select a different desktop like an Inspiron (or just click this link) and then on the left navigation where you can select "Family" choose the Dell Zino. When I tried to look for Dell Zinos from the Outlet store directly it said there were none - when there were. Also, refresh your browser often, the store is always rotating stock.
I will likely sell my existing computer on Craigslist, which will be a nice starter HTPC for someone.
- HDHomeRun Prime - I've written about how you can end cable box rental fees with HDHomeRun Prime. One of the reasons why I wanted a quad-core HTPC is because this is able to record three streams (or 6 if I want ot ) of televsion content at the same time. I figure that I'll need as much computer processing power as possible for the decoding and writing of the cable content to disk.
This would replace my Comcast cable box and while it is $250 on Amazon that's a saving of $16 per month. It will pay for itself in the 16th month. After that I'll save about $200 a year. In addition, if I purchase a Xbox 360 (to use as a Windows Media Center Extender) for the television upstairs, I'll get access to my library of shows at a one-time cost instead of monthly Comcast fees.
- PogoPlug Pro - This devices allow you plug an external hard drive into it and access the data wherever you have Internet access - by just about any device. So this should solve the problem of "How do I watch my Buffy the Vampire Slayer while away on the road or on an airplane?" You can also imagine the number of business uses it would have. CNet had a deal with this last week. It usually sells for $99 (with the streaming software around $129), but I was able to get it for $40 plus shipping. For that kind of price, I can give it a shot and if it doesn't work, likely recoup all the money on Craigslist.
- PlayOn - One of the problems with the TouchPad is that companies haven't made a lot of applications for it. For example, Netflix uses Microsoft Silverlight instead of Adobe Flash and since Microsoft hasn't written a mobile client (that I'm aware of) for any device, companies like Netflix have to create their own applications. They created an app for the IPad and Android, but not for the Touchpad's operating system, webOS, yet. PlayOn can pair with my HTPC, which can use Microsoft Silverlight to give me access to Netflix streaming video. The downside is that PlayOn is a subscription service unless you buy the lifetime membership for around $80. That's a little pricey for just Netflix access which would be my primary use for it. This may seem to be overlap with the PogoPlug, but PlayOn gives access to streaming media in real-time rather than the shows that are stored on a hard drive.
That's about as far as I've gone at the moment. Frankly that's quite a bit. The total cost for all four pieces should be around $900 (excluding the Xbox for now), which is actually a lot less than I would have expected. Err, make that $1100 with the two Touchpads. However, considering that 2 iPads cost almost that by themselves, this seems like a bigger bargain.
Ask the Readers: What am I Missing?
I feel like I am missing some very cool technology solutions. I haven't been following all the gadget websites like I used to.
Off the bat, I can say that I'm missing a way for my television upstairs to watch shows on the hard drive downstairs. For that I'd need something like a portable computer or device with hard drive and an HDMI out. My laptop would work, for instance. However, that's far from ideal, especially considering that the PogoPlug would theoretically make it available to a connected device up there. The Xbox might have a "computer" mode where it can see the files on my hard drives via the PogoPlug. I don't own an Xbox, so I'll let someone else chime in on that.
Anyone else attempt such an ambitious project? How did it work for you? Let me know in the comments.
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