Bumper Crop of TV/PC Gizmos

New devices take vastly different approaches to bridging the gap
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If last week's announcements are any indication, 2007 will be the year when the TV and PC finally start to settle their differences and make nice.

Computers have been making headway into the living room for almost a decade; last year, products like the TiVo Series3, Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii helped the cause. But the explosion of video content on the Internet in 2006 has given rise to a bumper crop of TV/PC devices. The approaches could not be more different.

None of these companies seem bothered by consumer skepticism. A late-2006 Forrester poll found that 80% of U.S. households are reluctant to buy a separate device to allow Internet video to be viewed easily on TV.

But as with any nascent industry, new conveniences change public perception.

In typical fashion, Apple has chosen a singular path. Apple TV eschews both standard TV and Internet content (despite having a hard drive, it offers no DVR options) and plays only content available from Apple Inc.'s iTunes.

Announced in September and elaborated on at Macworld, the $299 box connects to a user's home computer through a Wi-Fi connection and grabs content—music, TV shows—purchased from the iTunes Store (more than 50 million shows have been sold), as well as media already stored on the computer. Content is displayed on a TV via HDMI (high-definition multimedia interface) or a component video connection; navigation is by a simple “iPod-like” interface.

Sony has abandoned the PC altogether. Its Bravia Internet Video Link has no hard drive or Wi-Fi connection, instead attaching to the HDMI port on selected Bravia TV sets and connecting to the Internet via Ethernet cable. It is programmed to offer streaming content from such portals as AOL and Yahoo!, as well as from sites like Sony's YouTube-clone Grouper. Further offerings are expected through a Sony Web portal. Navigation will be via remote and a simple icon-based interface.

No bandwidth for HD

Although the Internet Video Link is designed to work with Sony's hi-def TVs, bandwidth limitations mean that content will not be in HD. “It's not just quality; it's about having access,” says Randall Waynick, senior VP of marketing for Sony's home products division.

On the other end of the spectrum of TV/PC devices is the “reverse Slingbox,” the SlingCatcher, which two-year-old Sling Media announced at CES. SlingCatcher is essentially media-agnostic: When attached to the Internet and a television, it can stream and project content directly from any PC or Mac using the free “SlingProjector” software. Users will be able to watch not only Internet videos on a TV but also, it seems, content protected by digital-rights management like that provided with iTunes Movies.

These devices were only a few of the recent announcements concerning TV/PC convergence. Micro­soft's Windows Vista can integrate content with TVs and with the company's Xbox 360. And TiVo has a deal to allow content bought with RealNetworks' Rhapsody software to stream from users' computers to a TiVo unit.

These TV/PC devices may one day be judged by how each deals with one problem: bandwidth. According to Forrester analyst Josh Bernoff, current online video hasn't “even reached VHS quality.”

Because sites like YouTube and stores like iTunes require only a typical broadband connection and a PC screen, they can't provide even standard-definition quality (Apple TV can handle at most 720-line progressive; HDTV is 1080p).

Full streaming-television experience is going to have to wait for homes with higher bandwidth connections, an “advance that's probably at least two years away in the U.S.,” according to Bernoff.

By then, other developments will no doubt further define this market. Televisions with a built-in PC bridge seem a matter of time. Meanwhile, users who have dropped thousands on HD sets will view low-res video on their new boxes in the knowledge that these are baby steps in narrowing this great divide.

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