Home entertainment - the PC way

We've been doing a lot of talking about DVDs - but do we even want the fragile, precious things around altogether?

mac plug base 88 (photo credit: )
mac plug base 88
(photo credit: )
We've been doing a lot of talking about DVDs - but do we even want the fragile, precious things around altogether? I, for one, find myself lamenting the long lost days of videotape - now there was a medium you could sic your teeth into (actually, the family dog used to do that on a regular basis - with little ill effect on the tape)! Looking back at it, we now realize that videos (and cassette tapes) were basically indestructible; if the analog tape's housing got damaged, you just pulled the tape out and put it in another case - or had the "video guy" from the video rental store do it. Ditto for if your tape got ripped somehow; it was a minor operation to reattach a spliced tape, and the worst that could happen would be that you lost maybe three seconds of dialog or music. As I have mentioned here before, however, all indications are that the media companies got wise to this indestructibility - and have been promoting a program of replacing those reliable delivery systems with the flimsy CD/DVD - which (almost) gets scratched just by looking at it. Fortunately, we probably won't have to put up with DVDs much longer, anyway. More and more people are bypassing them and directly copying or downloading movies, TV shows, and computer games directly to their computers - in contravention of the will of the movie and music producers and, in many cases, of the law. Whether or not the Recording Industry Association of America, the umbrella group for many record and media companies, has given up the fight against what appears an inexorable tide of pirated copying, those who engage in it aren't even subtle anymore - even major computer Web sites review the advantages and disadvantages of various p2p sharing programs, rating them for availability of files, size of audience, etc. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em, says at at least one major music merchant - the often forward-looking Apple, which now offers top-flight music videos and first run American network TV shows for downloading to your iPod. For two bucks a pop you can watch your favorite series when they're still fresh, instead of two years later on local TV. You buy these through the iTunes store, which is conveniently located in every copy of iTunes (Mac, PC and otherwise). Don't have an iPod? Don't fret! There are a host of computer media players that will play iPod video (MP4) format, such as VLC Media Player (http://www.videolan.org/vlc), which is available for almost all computer platforms (right now, you can download free episodes of a new NBC show called Conviction, "a stunning new drama from the creators of Law and Order.") Can you (legally) share it because it's free? It's not clear from the iPod store usage policy, which allows multiple copying of files customers pay for; but I didn't see anything that would prohibit watching the file on a computer screen instead of an iPod. And there are plenty of other broadcast shows you can download as well, meant for an iPod but watchable on a PC. VLC Media Player, for its part, will broadcast your video file over a high speed network to computers or monitors in other parts of your home, if you so wish. And we already know, of course, all about copying (uncopyrighted) videos - movies and video recorded off the TV - onto a computer hard drive in AVI format, also playable by VLC, Windows Media Player, or one of dozens of other programs. I also mentioned, once, a great product I set up in my house, also, coincidentally, made by Apple: The Airport Express Base Station with AirTunes. This device can function as a wireless router for Macs, but it can also be integrated into a PC network (as I have done) and connected to a set of regular stereo speakers, either by ethernet or wireless network - allowing you to play music from your computer via the speakers. All of a sudden your living room CD player is obsolete - even if you have a 10 disc changer that can play 150 songs at one shot. With Airport Express, you can store all your music in MP3 format on a a hard drive, create a playlist in iTunes, and let your music play all day long - and all week long, if you have the material. Checking my downloaded music folder, I was shocked to learn that I have no fewer than 5,000 MP3 files on my hard drive, mostly thanks to the free version of StationRipper (http://www.stationripper.com), which lets you download songs broadcast on legal MP3 broadcast channels on Shoutcast servers (http://yp.shoutcast.com). That's about two weeks' worth of music I can play on my living room stereo, without repeating. Airport Express works in tandem with iTunes. If you like radio, you're limited to the stations provided by iTunes itself (about 100) or the Shoutcasts on the yp.shoutcast.com server, where there are about 4,000 broadcasts at any time, mostly music. However, if you like American style talk radio, Shoutcast isn't going to do it for you as most of the major US talk and news station use Windows Media Player, which iTunes doesn't support. Natively, that is. If you have a Mac with OS X, there is a very cool program that will let you broadcast any stream through your Airport Express device - including Windows Media Player, Realplayer, and iTunes streams. Airfoil (http://www.rogueamoeba.com/airfoil) fixes, for $25, what iTunes forgot to include. Now, any Web site with a radio stream (including in-line Web streams) can play loud and clear through your stereo speakers. And if you install Radio Replay (http://www.applian.com/replay-radio/index.php) on your PC and copy the file called stations.txt to your Mac and copy the relevant stream information to your Windows Media Player or Realplayer, and start streaming. There's a pattern here, which I'm sure you've figured out by now. Your PC is (or can be) more than a computer - it's a media center, It plays music, movies, TV shows, and can do all sorts of other wonderful things - like pick up local radio stations and terrestrial high definition TV broadcasts. You probably already have most of the equipment necessary to accomplish this, and along with free or low cost software, you can outfit your system to provide entertainment for the whole house - cheap! Next time, we'll look at the building blocks of such a system, what additional hardware and software you need, and how to get set up. Ds@newzgeek.com