posted by David Adams on Mon 27th Oct 2008 23:11 UTC
IconAs part of our ongoing series, "Building the Wired Home," we've been experimenting with what could be a sea-change in the whole concept of a home computer. Home computers, of course, have long ago become commonplace, and computers have even taken on some roles that used to be delegated to standalone consumer electronics, such as audio and video storage and playback. They've gone from being exotic oddities to ever-more-useful home appliances. Interestingly, though, as our home computers have become more powerful, sophisticated, and useful, they have also become decentralized and have, in most inefficient fashion, been chopped up and redistributed around the house. "Read more" to learn how our experiment worked out.

What in days not so long ago would have been mind-bogglingly-powerful processing machines are now powering our telephones, video game machines, digital video recorders, media servers, wireless routers, print servers, home automation controllers, ebook readers, multifunction remote controls, and even refrigerators. Much of this processing power and memory lies idle for much of the day, but nevertheless hums along, wasting electricity and representing a considerable monetary investment in technology that will soon be obsolete and needing replacement. It would make a lot more sense for one powerful computer, loaded with RAM and big hard disks (preferably in RAID 5) to act as the centralized nerve center of the house. It would end up being more convenient, more power-efficient, less expensive, and would provide a single point of upgrade.

This article will take a look at why systems like this aren't more common, and what a system like this would look like, and how it works in the real world. We'll also look at some things that maybe aren't so common in today's homes that a centralized home server can make possible.

The first step in making our home nerve center are the rather mundane issues of where to put it and how to connect it to everything. This brings up the #1 reason why these kinds of setups aren't more common: most homes aren't designed to accommodate the wires and cables required to make these systems work optimally. We covered this issues in-depth in an earlier article in this series, but suffice to say that had I not been able to run various types of cable through the walls while the house was being built, it would have been difficult and costly. Therefore, it would require more that just some clever engineering to make a home nerve center practical; it will take a minor but radical transformation of architectural practices. Nevertheless, I believe it would be a worthwhile endeavor.

I designed our home server to be located in a basement utility area right next to the patch panels where all of the home's electrical wiring, both high and low voltage, converge. I had distributed cat5e, coaxial, low voltage power cable to various areas of the home, along with conduit to accommodate fiber optic or any other cable we'd want to run in the future. I also ran some long DVI and HDMI cables to strategic areas of the house. I did this so I could connect a couple of monitors directly to the machine. That's one of the shortcomings of a home server that's merely connected to the various home appliances via network. Though theoretically you can stream video over those network cables, it's not an ideal situation, since the hardware you'd need is an expensive specialty item, and you'd typically need to dedicate some cat5 wires to the job and not run all that data over the ethernet network.

So I ran a long DVI cable from the home server to a desk area in the kitchen, along with a cat5 cable. I attached an LCD monitor to the DVI cable, and used a USB cat5 active repeater to run USB from that work area to the server. If you're not familiar with these, it's two dongles that you attach to each end of a long cat5 cable with USB plugs on each end. It allowed me to make a 50 foot USB cable with inexpensive cat5 cabling. I plugged it into the monitor's built-in USB hub, and I was able to plug a mouse, the wireless dongle for the lovely DiNovo Edge keyboard that project-sponsor Logitech provided, and a set of USB speakers into the monitor and use the home server comfortably and silently, even though it was fifty feet away, connected by only two cables.

The other DVI cable I have connected to the machine's dual DVI video card is connected to an old 17" monitor that I have mounted into the wall in the center of the home. More on that unorthodox decision later.

So a little about the hardware and software of my "home computer." Project sponsor Intel provided a media center motherboard and quad core processor, which, combined with spare components lying around the office and $100 or so of new computer parts I made into a speedy and capable home server. I was only missing a big fat disk, and project sponsor came through with a massive hard drive that consumes up to 40% less power than a regular drive.

Even before Intel provided the mobo and fast chip, I had already decided that despite my weakness for Macs, there were various reasons why a Mac wouldn't be the best bet for this project, the first one being that I wanted its lessons to be more widely-applicable (and the budget was small). And though the geek in me found Linux appealing, I ultimately decided on Windows, for software availability, and decided on (gasp) Windows Vista. For a super fast and brand new computer with mostly all-new but not-too-new components, Vista works great. I was only worried that some of the more obscure hardware and software I'd have hooked to this thing might have compatibility problems. We'll see.

So here it is, essentially a run-of-the-mill home computer that's attached to a keyboard and monitor half way across the house and a monitor embedded in the wall somewhere else. It's not exactly a home nerve center yet. What's the next step? First, connect that gigabit ethernet NIC to the gigabit ethernet hub, and network it with the various other computing devices in the home. Second, one of those devices is a wireless access point (an Apple Airport Express -- more on that later) so the various wireless devices can connect. Third, consolidate many of the computing functions in the house to this one machine and copy all of the important audio, video, and other files to this machine's big hard drive. Now we're ready to add some special software and hardware, stir, and usher in a new era of multimedia prosperity.

Here's where the ugly reality starts to interfere with my starry-eyed fantasy. In a perfect world, I would be able to us this "media center" as the central repository for all my entertainment media. It would be able to receive a pipe with incoming live TV from the air, cable or satellite, audio and video files downloaded or streamed over the internet, read or rip physical media like DVDs or CDs, and also rip, download and save video game and desktop software. And these files should be able to be kept until consumed or archived forever. Around the house, I should be able to have purpose-specific terminals that connect to this media center with whatever networking medium is required for the necessary bandwidth of the signal. Audio amplifiers should be able to stream music over ethernet or wi-fi. Video receivers would stream 1080p video and surround sound over gigabit ethernet or fiber. Game hardware (with specialized controllers) would load games into local memory over the LAN. Desktop terminals would allow me to harness the media center's computing power from a thin client. Touch-screen tablet terminals would connect wirelessly to the media center and stream text or video content from any sofa in the house. Everything I've mentioned in this fantasy scenario is possible using five year old technology.

My fantasy world isn't restrained by technology, but by intellectual property law. Any attempts to legally consolidate media in an efficient and user-friendly have been hamstrung by legal issues. The music, TV, movie, and software industries just won't make it easy to move their bytes around as easily as you need to be able to to make a system like this work. Now, you can, of course, make unauthorized copies of all of these files and work around the limiters and safeguards. But because you have to do it yourself, in the "grey area," there are no consumer electronics makers who'll design the hardware you need to make it as easy as it could be. There are no TVs designed to stream a signal over a LAN. There are no game consoles that will load games from a file server. There are audio amplifiers that will stream audio files over the network, though. And these systems give us a tantalizing view into what could be.

If you're content to watch all your TV and play all your games on a PC, there are dozens of media center applications that run the gamut of features: Live TV with DVR capability, apps that will display video in every imaginable format, a myriad of services to display streaming video, legal and illicit. But it basically means that wherever you want to consume the media, you have to have a full-blown computer there hooked to the monitor. In fact, that's what we were forced to do it this house: It's about 500 feet too far away from the local cable terminal box, and it's too remote to get an over-the-air TV signal, so our only live TV option is satellite. So the two TVs in the house are connected to DirecTV HD DVRs. These DVR boxes are just specialized computers with specialized inputs and outputs. But because they're built to serve the needs of DirecTV and the TV industry (and because they're TiVo knockoffs and not the real thing) they're not nearly as flexible as I would want them to be. For one thing, I have to have a separate box for each TV. If I don't know which TV I'll want to watch "Lost" on, I have to make sure I record it on both of them, because I can't transfer shared files between them. I could go on and on.

What these DVR boxes do have, is the ability to pull files from the network. So I can stream video, audio, and still photo files from my central media center to my TVs. The software is clunky and file format support is a problem. In order to make it work, I have to convert any video files to mpeg2. I was able to find software that promises to ameliorate that issue. TVersity will transcode and stream media files from your media center to a wide variety of terminals (DVRs, game consoles, etc) regardless of what file formats they support. However, I have not been able to get TVersity to transcode all of the video formats I've thrown at it. So video streaming has been hit or miss.

Table of contents
  1. Home Computer, Page 1
  2. Home Computer, Page 2
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