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Wireless Media Receivers

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TechNews.com Tech Policy E-letter You are reading the weekly Fast Forward E-letter. Written by Washington Post personal technology columnist Rob Pegoraro, the e-mail version of this feature includes links to all the top personal tech stories from the previous week.
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Calling Out the Copy Controllers (washingtonpost.com, Aug 2, 2004)
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2004 Laptop Guide (washingtonpost.com, Jul 12, 2004)
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Monday, July 26, 2004;

Clear your schedules, because it's time for another one of my Web chats at 2 p.m. ET today. If you can't make it during the one-hour discussion, stop by early and submit a comment or question.

I'm guessing that most of the questions will be about wireless media receivers, the topic of yesterday's column, in which I reviewed Apple's AirPort Express and SlimDevices' Squeezebox. (Observant readers may recall that I'd announced plans to try out a third media receiver, Roku Labs' SoundBridge; the company was unable to send me a working production model in time for my deadline.)

I've now looked at quite a few of these things -- besides the two in yesterday's column, I've covered D-Link's MediaLounge, Gateway's Media Center PC and Connected DVD Player, Hewlett-Packard's Digital Media Receiver ew5000, Prismiq's MediaPlayer and Roku's HD1000.

From all this testing, I can draw a few conclusions:

* A digital media receiver should have no more trouble accessing a WiFi network than any laptop or handheld organizer. Why so many companies continue to get this wrong utterly escapes me.

* If it's going to play my digital music, it needs to play all of my digital music, including the stuff that I've lawfully purchased at an online store like iTunes. I suppose it's too much to hope for that one media receiver be compatible with both iTunes and Napster/Wal-Mart/Musicmatch's Windows Media-based downloads. But a device that already plays AAC files should support their copy-controlled variant, and a Windows Media- compatible receiver should have no problem playing a copy- controlled WMA file bought online.

* The less software I have to install and use, the better. I should not have to learn a completely different program to manage the songs broadcast to the media receiver, as opposed to the one I use to manage the songs I play on the computer itself. The AirPort Express's advantage in working directly within iTunes should be obvious (Roku's SoundBridge will also offer this feature), but the Squeezebox's SlimServer software also earned some points just for being an easier, lower- maintenance program than, say, the atrocious server application bundled with the D-Link product.

* Devices that promise an all-in-one convergence experience, streaming not just your digital music but also your digital photos and videos to the home-theater system, may be more trouble than they're worth. If they don't support HDTV output, they make your photos look far worse than they are. They often require you to turn on the TV just to listen to music, and then there's the question of whether there's the same kind of demand for photo and video-viewing in the living room anyway?

* The ever-decreasing cost of WiFi laptops has to impose some kind of ceiling on the price and complexity of wireless media receivers. Make them too difficult and too pricey, and most sane people will decide they'd rather just spend a little more and get a laptop that will let them check their e-mail and browse the Web in addition to playing their music and showing their photos.

While I'm on the subject of the AirPort Express, it's worth taking a look at what this does to Apple's other WiFi access point -- the AirPort Extreme base station. With the launch of the Express, Apple got rid of the entry-level Extreme base station and cut the price of its higher-end sibling, which adds a modem port and an antenna jack, from $249 to $199.

I'd previously criticized Apple's entire line of WiFi hardware as being dramatically overpriced compared to the competition. I think the Express is a great bargain at $129, given everything that it does. But I can't see the Extreme as any kind of a great deal. For that price, it should have at least two local-area-network Ethernet ports, instead of just one (in addition to the one reserved for the Internet connection). It ought to support the "power over Ethernet" capability of its discontinued sibling, which can eliminate the need to plug the thing into the wall.

Dialing Up a Few Thoughts

This must be a busy time of year for Internet-phone services, to judge from the pleading tone of the "please review us" e-mails I'm getting from publicists for "VoIP"(Voice over Internet Protocol) services. The latest arrival is Verizon; my colleague Leslie Walker noted the launch of its new VoiceWing Internet- phone service in her Web Watch column yesterday. I agree with her that it doesn't seem the strongest contender on price grounds alone.

But I also find it strangely weak in the area-code- availability department. You can't get a number in the 202 and 301 area codes, along with the entire New York City assortment. I can see not offering 212, but when even the universally unloved 646 area code isn't offered, something odd is afoot.

Two other notes about phone service -- in this case, Verizon Wireless, which is finally catching up to its competitors' selection of cell phones in two important respects. This week, it began selling PalmOne's Treo 600 smartphone, just over nine months after Sprint PCS offered a version of the device that used the same basic wireless technology as Verizon's.

Separately, Motorola and Verizon announced that the handset maker's V710 phone would be available through Verizon next month. This is a big deal because this phone will be Verizon's first ever with Bluetooth wireless built-in.

As such, it will end one of the sillier standards battles ever -- there was never any good reason for Bluetooth to be restricted to carriers using GSM wireless technology and not CDMA (which Sprint and Verizon use). Now if Sprint and Nextel could get around to offering their own Bluetooth phones, we'd actually have a fair competition going on.

-- Rob Pegoraro (rob@twp.com)


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