Going with the stream

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Home entertainment products that access media from the internet and share video and music stored on PCs are becoming increasingly common. Ian Calcutt looks at what this means for your customers.

Media streaming is a catch-all term for playing audio or video content that, unlike a CD, DVD or Blu-ray Disc, is not directly sitting inside the device. This material could be songs, films or TV playing via the internet, hosted by sites and services like Spotify, YouTube, LoveFilm and BBC iPlayer.

It can also be content from a user’s digital music and video collection on their home computer – or other hardware equipped with a hard disk – and accessible by other devices.

At first, media streaming was enjoyed by computer and AV devotees who understood the complexities involved. That’s before we even get to the multitude of different and often conflicting digital formats that use all manner of acronyms and abbreviations (see Connecting the Dots). The spec lists of such products resemble the aftermath of a horde of monkeys ransacking a Scrabble factory.

Although there are dedicated media streaming boxes – including Apple TV, Boxee and the WD TV Live – streaming features are now found in ‘smart’ products such as newer TVs, digital receivers, games consoles, mobile phones and hi-fis. 

The essential part is a network connection, either wired using an Ethernet port (also commonly used to link computers together within a building) or via Wi-Fi and other wireless technologies. As with any ‘connected’ product, some consumers may not yet be making use of these features. It can also be a challenge for retailers to demo them fully to customers.

“The ability to demonstrate products in store is critical,” says Colin Crawford, director of marketing at Pure, “and as products become increasingly connected, it is becoming even more important to have a decent Wi-Fi connection in store. New technologies such as Apple AirPlay are increasing consumer awareness of media streaming. Services like Pure Music are a huge move forward from local streaming as they allow the user to stream just about any song in the world, for a small monthly subscription, to ‘normal’ products like Pure’s range of internet-connected radios.”

Spoilt for choice

Issues such as the differences between formats and whether they are likely to play on a particular product are another concern.

“The computer market has spoilt us with choice for formats when it comes to media streaming but this hasn’t been good for the consumer,” says Bob Hannent, senior technical manager at Humax Electronics. “Even on a computer, it can be difficult to know if something will play or not without a specific download. The consumer electronics industry is trying to help but not all devices are created equally.”

Malcolm Donohoe, sales manager at Digital Audio Distribution, recommends that “a little time finding out what the customer has and what they intend to play saves a lot of head-scratching and frustration. Most streamers support the common requirements such as YouTube. LoveFilm and iPlayer are licensed specifically and you need to check if you intend to use it. Filetypes only really come into it if you create your own DVD backups or download movies digitally. The specific streamer products – from the likes of Dune and Popcorn Hour – have huge compatibility but products from the more major manufacturers like Sony tend – currently – to limit their compatibility somewhat.”

The best media streaming products are versatile, upgradeable and have a strong after-sales service. As WD Europe’s senior product marketing manager, Kalima Toubal, explains, “WD has a support team that answers all technical questions on the phone or via email. We also have the WDCommunity with WDTVlive.com. Firmware updates are available on a regular basis, not only to fix bugs but also to evolve with the dynamics of the digital content world.”

World view

CE manufacturers face constant difficulties in creating devices that can handle all kinds of digital formats and to keep up with changes, while remaining user-friendly. It is generally easier to focus on simpler concepts, such as multiroom audio, whereas video – especially HD – often comes with digital rights management (DRM) that restricts copying or transferring between devices.

“Consumers are starting to listen to music in many different ways and are increasingly streaming their music,” says Pure’s Colin Crawford. “There has been an increase in the use of connected audio products as well as music apps such as the Pure Lounge iPhone app in conjunction with docking products. This gives the user access to a world of listening through their home Wi-Fi network.”

According to Malcolm Donohoe, “Multiroom and video streaming are simple if you stick with one media source, say iTunes or LoveFilm. More sophisticated requirements such as downloads from multiple sources and compiling into one video library are still more of an ‘enthusiast’ pastime. This is changing, however, and we see the next great leap forward to be a manufacturer taking ownership of all aspects from content to delivery and storage. The precedents – iPod, Sonos, Kindle – have spelled out what’s required to drive the capability into the mainstream. My view is that within one to two years we will see that service; from who is a different question.”

Plug’n’play

Media streaming performance also depends on the efficiency of a user’s computer network and content-sharing technology. For this, a reasonable knowledge of UPnP and DLNA protocols is needed. If you are offering product support, there can be many variables.

“The vast majority of products will ‘plug and play’,” says Malcolm Donohoe. “Most home routers and available devices now use UPnP in a fairly robust manner, more than even a year ago. In the cases of issues, a good proportion will be created by other products on the customer’s network – PCs or NAS [networked attached storage] drives incorrectly set up – which brings up the question of where does your support stop?”

As technology advances, media streaming is getting more straightforward, both for retailers to demo and for consumers to operate. Bob Hannent says: “We are increasingly seeing devices which don’t just show a structure of files as you would see on your hard disk, but incorporating library functions which ‘discover’ and organise home content. This will make networking more transparent to the consumer.”

There are also moves to build more sophisticated media streaming features into existing product categories, potentially affecting on demand for standalone boxes. Malcolm Donohoe says: “It’s heartening to compare to the MP3 player market. Most mobile phones have good MP3 functionality, however, iPod sales are strong and Apple still considers it an important brand. If the product offers a benefit over integrated devices, then the segment will survive. Clearly, there are a lot of customers who recognise the need for tailored, specific devices.”

Bob Hannent adds: “Humax would like to see a reduction of clutter and confusion for consumers and adding one new box for every service is not practical. Increasing compliance with HTML5 is allowing content providers to target delivery of services to a wide range of popular consumer products. Providers no longer have to always write software for each platform.”

Are you being served?

In terms of hybrids, there is evidence that not all ‘connected’ products are actually linked up, and features such as streaming remain unused in some households. “We know that many consumers purchase ‘the best’ product irrespective of the use they may make of advanced feature
s, such as media streaming,” says Bob Hannent. “Consumers will be able to discover this dormant functionality later as they become aware of the concepts.”

Streaming offers further opportunities regarding what else is needed for home networking. “Retailers with knowledge about home networking, peripherals and the best options available are a valuable resource to the consumer,” says Hannent. “Not all technologies are suitable to all environments and consumers should be aware that some home construction techniques block wireless signals. HomePlug powerline networking may be more suitable for some, however, if they can fit a wired connection there could be more advantages. Increasingly, NAS products are able to integrate with other products and, for retailers, being able to talk about this offers value to the consumer.”

Malcolm Donohoe concludes: “Video streaming, especially hi-def, is more intensive on network resources than almost anything else. This is wholly dependent on the network quality. The benefits are simple to communicate – iPlayer will play in higher fidelity, buffering times will be reduced on movie streaming from a NAS drive and the dreaded stops and stutters will be banished.”

Connecting the dots

Digital audio and video come in a huge range of formats and variations. Files are encoded in a certain convention (known as a codec), usually grouped under umbrella standards such as MPEG1, MPEG4 or Windows Media (Video or Audio). Even within standards such as MPEG4, there are numerous iterations – H264 is one of the most prominent.

These are subdivided into different container formats. Here you’ll find the actual filename extensions (the part after a filename’s final dot). Some of these may be familiar, including MP3, WMA, FLAC, AAC and M4A for audio and AVI, WMV, MKV, MP4 and MOV for video. Even within a single filetype, incompatibilities can be caused by issues, for example frame rates, video resolution (especially HD) and, for music, the sampling rate or number of audio channels.

Problematic files can be converted, though this is not always easy. Free playback and conversion software such as VLC (www.videolan.org/vlc) works on nearly all types of computer, but one with a powerful processor and plenty of RAM will do the job faster.

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