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Thursday, September 01, 2005

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The Synergistic PC

Category: Concepts

If there's one thing I've learned about Bill Gates, it's that he's a horrible predictor of the future. He may not have actually said that "640K is enough for everyone," but he did make a few other whopper predictions. Among them was his "vision" for the future of the Personal Computer as laid out in his book, The Road Ahead.

According to Mr. Gates, your computer was destined to merge with your television, and the TV would become a super-entertainment system of the future. Of course, this prediction conveniently ignored the technological problems and consequences, not the least of which was that the TV was a blurry, low resolution device. Even if he assumed that the future would produce high resolution televisions, there were simply too many problems with the idea of the television as the home computer. (As Gateway can attest from their failed experiments with the idea back in the 90's.)

Yet there is a certain allure to the idea of merging the television and the computer into one device. Especially when you consider the number of computers now equipped with DVD drives, and the sheer amount of illegal file sharing of movies and television programs. Perhaps the TV isn't going to become your computer, but there certainly is a demand for the internet to merge with your television.

Gates Got it Backwards

Five years ago I argued with my wife about the getting a television. She was against the concept because she was worried that the television would always be on, thus distracting the family from spending time together. Yet I had managed to pique her interest in Star Trek, and she wanted to be able to record and watch the old Star Trek episodes as much as I did. (Believe it or not, there wasn't really anything else on that we wanted to watch.)

So I managed to cut a deal with my wife. We'd get a television card for the computer, and use that in conjunction with super-basic cable (~$14.95 in California) to record and watch our shows. She agreed, so I purchased and installed the TV card. With the help of the free version of SlipStream PVR, we were soon recording all the Star Trek we wanted.

Which brings me to my point. Mr. Gates got it backwards. Televisions weren't going to become the computer, the computer was going to become the television! Even in '96 (when Mr. Gates published his book) this was apparent. TV Cards were affordable, and computers were capable of higher quality pictures than the "normal" TV screens of the day. Why would anyone bother merging the computer into a massive vacuum tube when they could just wait for better computer monitors?

So What is the Future?

Consider the following configuration for a moment:
  • Modern computer with a 250 GBs or more of SATA-300 Disk
  • 30 inch LCD TV with DVI inputs
  • TV Card with Remote Control
  • 5.1 Sound Card and Speakers (probably built into the MotherBoard)
Save for the 30 inch LCD TV, that should sound like a fairly normal PC today. The TV Card with the Remote might not be "standard", but it would add less than $50 to the price of the PC. But what about that 30 inch TV? What is that for? If you're thinking, "TV/OUT", then you're thinking wrong. An LCD TV with a DVI connector can actually act as the computer monitor, because it is a computer monitor. Just mount it on your wall, and be free from eye strain forever!

As cool as that is, though, it's still not my final point. The final point I'm getting to is in connecting the power of these few components. Consider for a moment, this little configuration could replace your television, your TIVO, your CD Player, your DVD Player, and even your stereo system! (Especially if you opt for the FM tuner in the TV Card.) All of these devices combined into one unit! You can record your favorite shows, pause live TV, watch your rented movies, listen to your tunes, everything!

Of course, if that was it then such a machine would be simply "nice to have". Certainly not a requirement for any household. Especially houses that have already invested in a TIVO, Stereo, DVD Player, and CD Player.

Consider this for a moment:

With this setup, you can not only do the things I've already listed, but you can also watch movies and listen to music directly from the internet. Through iTunes, you can instantly download new music and listen to a huge selection of radio stations. Through your web browser, you can pull the latest PodCasts and listen to news from around the world. Through MovieLink you can pull the latest movie releases. And if this catches on, you might even be able to watch your favorite television shows! Plus you can still use your computer for all the office and gaming work it performed before!

In other words, computers have finally reached the state of Digital Convergence. All the functions that we used to have to build separate devices for are now nothing more than simple inputs or outputs from our computers. Thus we are able to strip electronic devices down to their simplest level and combine all the functions together to produce something that is more than the sum of its parts.

When Can I Get This Cool Stuff?

Now, of course! The stage of convergence I just talked about is here today! All the technology can be had for a reasonable price!

To help you build your very own convergence machine, I've compiled a list of parts and software that could help you build it from scratch. These parts attempt to combine good functionality with a good price. You can use the parts I suggest, or find equivalents that suit your preference.

Hardware Links
  • Leadtek TV Card - Contains a TV Tuner, FM Tuner, remote control, plus fully featured PVR software with live TV pausing.

  • A8N-E - A motherboard with AMD64 support, onboard 8 Channel Audio, PCI-Express support, 10 USB ports, plus support for up to 4 SATA-300 drives. (I recommend that you also get this board with a CPU and Memory. AMD64 3500 and 1GB is my choice.)

  • NVidia GeForce 6600 - All the Modern 3D Features, High Performance, DVI Out, Supports Linux, Dual Head Support, Good Price.

  • Western Digital 160 GB SATA Drives - Good Price, High Performance, Reliable Company. (I recommend at least 2 drives for PVR work. The motherboard I recommended supports up to four, so go hog wild!)

  • Case - Well, you need something to put this equipment in, don't you?

  • DVD Drive - Burns DVDs (+/-/RW), CDs, and can even label disks!

  • Speakers - All in favor of sound, say 'Aye' in Dolby 5.1 Surround.

  • LCD TV - Probably the most expensive part of the purchase (up until now, you shouldn't have racked up more than about a thousand dollars), but it's the centerpiece that makes the entertainment center complete. If you don't actually need a big TV, a 19" LCD Monitor will always work too.

Software Links
  • MovieLink - Rent Movies Online. Seriously. (The down side is that most new releases are only available for a short time.)

  • iTunes - Music, Radio Stations, etc. You know the drill.

  • Windows XP or Linux/BSD - Windows has better support for the bundled PVR and Remote Control software out of the box. Linux and BSD require a bit of tweaking before they will operate at full capacity, but there are plenty of options.

Looking Forward

Believe it or not, there is still more convergence on the way. For example, shouldn't it be possible to combine the game console with the computer? How about the problem of computing while watching the television? Well, technology isn't there yet. Keep an eye out for a future series where I present a vision that would further meld our homes into our computers, thus reducing components and increasing features.

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