Coming Around to 'Convergence'

Hannah Eaves December 7, 2009

There is something in the very thought of AV cables that fills most people with dread, and a small few others with child-like joy. A few beers into Thanksgiving I looked over to see my cousin Tom pointing excitedly around his home entertainment system, and when he stepped aside I saw a Dell computer shoved in there on its side. Tom does not work in technology—he’s a specialized registered nurse. And he’s not alone, as more and more people make the connection that TVs and projectors are, in their most basic form, just really big computer monitors. While set top box, Bluray and TV manufacturers are now offering a closed set of web enabled applications in an attempt to make themselves the gateway drug to getting internet on your TV, many others out there are doing it Tom’s way. That is, by just buying a couple of cables. The industry calls it convergence. But why do so many people have trouble with it?

People buy speaker docks for their iPods, when they doubtless have all they need at home already—one dusty old audio cable. But as the years have gone by, more and more of my friends have started to not only listen to their iPods through their entertainment system, but also watch their TV through the Internet—or their Internet through the TV, depending on how you look at it. Earlier this year I joined them, connecting a Mac Mini to my HD projector system, and there’s been no looking back. Cables are clearly not the enemy.

Below I’ve compiled some questions and answers about my own, and some of my community’s, experiences with conversion. Admittedly, these are all web and media professionals. They’ve experimented with several of the options out there, including Mac Mini, Apple TV and plain old laptops. The winner so far is the Mac Mini, and with Bluray playback potentially on the horizon, it may become the system to beat. Unlike web enabled TVs and even Apple TV, it allows you to easily open a browser and go to whatever sites you like, as well as run applications like Boxee, which can be controlled by a remote control. And usually all you need is a DVI to HDMI cable and an audio cable. If a twelve-year-old kid and a puppet can do it, so can you.

What was the most recent thing you watched through your HDTV, and on what site?
Hannah: Lie to Me and House on Hulu; I Capture the Castle on Boxee/Netflix (now with search!).
Heidi: The Office on Hulu.
Scott: The Daily Show and the Colbert Report on Comedy Central
Rob: Boondock Saints, Netflix via Tivo.
Evan: Rescue from Gilligan’s Island on Netflix. It was terrible, and someone else was playing Ginger, but it was nice to see them finally get off the island (spoiler: and back on the island!).

What sites and applications do you use at home?
Hannah: Hulu, Boxee, Clicker, Netflix, Pandora, iTunes, The Auteurs.
Heidi: Hulu and Netflix.
Scott: Mostly AppleTV directly (iTunes movies and TV shows, YouTube, etc.), though we have installed XMBC/Boxee and we view Internet content through Hulu and other web sites,; it is somewhat buggy, but we at least get to watch The Daily Show and the Colbert Report for free!
Rob: Hulu, Boxee, YouTube, Netflix and Amazon Video on Demand.
Evan: Hulu, Netflix, and iTunes. Lala and Pandora are used for music. I’ve rented movies through the PS3, but only a couple times. That’s about it, really… I don’t have TV at all anymore, and don’t miss it.

What is your setup?
Hannah: Mac Mini with HD projector, running along with TiVo through a receiver. Also wireless keyboard and mouse. I sometimes also hook up my iPhone via this cable:
Heidi: We hook up our Macbook laptop to our TV (DVI-to-HDMI and RCAs for audio).
Scott: We have a 50" Panasonic Plasma HD Monitor (not a TV) connected to an HDMI receiver. An AppleTV is connected to the receiver via HDMI and the optical audio outs. We also have a VHS/DVD-R/HD tuner unit that is connected to the receiver for all of that over-the- air and old tangible media.
Rob: Mac Mini connected to HD A/V receiver via a DVI-to-HDMI cable + Mini-TOSLINK optical audio cable. Wireless Logitech keyboard & Apple remote. Tivo HD connected to receiver via HDMI cable (used for Netflix & Amazon downloads).
Evan: I have a laptop on my home-studio desk on one side of the room. I run really long cables (HDMI and optical audio) over to the other side of the room where the TV and receiver are. The video is mirrored so I can be on the couch or at the desk and use the computer. I have a wireless keyboard/mouse that I can use to control the laptop from the couch. The computer, a PS3, and a Wii all go through the receiver and into the TV. Sometimes an iPhone is also plugged into the receiver, and usually a turntable as well.

Do you have cable TV?
Hannah: Yes.
Heidi: Yes.
Scott: Lord, no.
Rob: Yes.
Evan: Nope… nor satellite.

Did you or will you get rid of cable because of being able to watch online content?
Hannah: Not until I can get Turner Classic Movies online.
Heidi: Probably will within one to two years.
Scott: Never had it.
Rob: Not yet.
Evan: Mainly don’t have it due to prohibitive cost and low quality "basic" cable offerings. Comcast also had trouble installing cable in my apartment, and I didn’t want to bother with satellite installation.

Would you say that the quality is as good as standard definition TV?
Hannah: Yes.
Heidi: In some ways yes—we can watch widescreen content. But we are occasionally bothered with buffering issues on Hulu.
Scott: Sometimes. We have a 6.0Mbps DSL connection so usually the picture is really great, but sometimes if the internet is sluggish the image quality will suffer. All in all I have been impressed with the image quality more than I thought I would be.
Rob: Yes.
Evan: As good as standard definition, yes. Not as good as real HD though, by a mile.

If you could change your setup, what would you do?
Hannah: Wouldn’t change it.
Heidi: Get a dedicated media server (Mac Mini, etc.) hooked up to the TV so we wouldn’t need to set up and then take down the laptop; experiment with Boxee, etc.; use remote control devices.
Scott: I would get rid of the AppleTV and get a MacMini with a DVI to HDMI converter ( so that I could get more resolution than the XVGA (1024×768) input on the plasma monitor allows. AppleTV is a nice idea and it might someday be great, but currently it is (to use a phrase that Steve Jobs used to describe the Blu-Ray spec) "a bag of hurt" specifically as regards managing the media files that you download….I like the idea of the MacMini because I am very comfortable with using a computer directly and it has more power, is more expandable etc. But I understand that such an option is not the future of devices like this and that ultimately something more like AppleTV will be the standard, it’s just not very well implemented at the moment.
Rob: Get rid of Comcast (once new shows are available online at the same time they show on live TV, and HD streaming is standard).
Evan: I’d like to add a standalone bluray player eventually so I don’t wear out the PS3 playing CDs (yes, I still play them) and DVDs (those too)… Other than that, I just want to continue upgrading components, piece by piece.

How much time did it take you to set up your system?
Hannah: About half a day because we had to take a lot of things out of the cabinet to rewire.
Heidi: Minutes, except Apple keeps changing their laptop DVI adaptors which drives me insane as we have three generations of Macbooks and three generations of adaptors.
Scott: A day or two. The big headache has been keeping XMBC/Boxee active through a few AppleTV updates. I’ve spent hours multiple times on that.
Rob: Six to twelve hours, with wiring and installation (still not done!).
Evan: About a full day’s work, I’d guess, but it’s stretched out over months honestly. The studio part is constantly a work in progress.

Any other thoughts?
Heidi: This is the future of television for a TON of people 40 or so and under. All cable/satellite etc. can save themselves with, content-wise, is live sports. If that goes to the Internet reliably, it’s over.
Scott: Broadcast and cable will be dead within 10 years. They simply do not have the capacity to compete with internet delivery of video and as it becomes easier to get video content delivered directly to a "TV"-like device, those other methods will collapse under the weight of their outmodedness. For instance, we bought the VHS/DVD-R/HD tuner because we thought we would need over-the-air HDTV to make it all worthwhile and that transition has been so poorly implemented (they can’t even get the damn aspect ratios correct in most cases!) that we have completely stopped watching anything over the air, especially since more and more content is readily available online everyday.
Rob: Cable & live TV are dead for prerecorded content. Everything will continue to move to online distribution, but the rollout will be slow until the cable & media companies figure out other ways to monetize content. The bandwidth limitations & restrictions of the "high-speed" Internet infrastructure in the US will also delay this transition.
Evan: I would get cable/satellite in a heartbeat if it was significantly cheaper. Cable and satellite signals already come right to my house by default, so it feels more like "keepaway" to me than an actual "service". The signal is essentially an unlimited resource, so I don’t feel I should have to pay through the nose monthly to get connected to it, then double the cost if I want channels that carry anything worthwhile. Also, in a perfect world, rather than paying for the service and receiving junk hardware for free, I’d rather buy premium hardware (so they still make money) and get the service for free. The good part of cable/sat that I miss is the passive act of watching show after show, and just flipping around. Internet TV requires much more effort, so I usually watch one show or movie and move on with my day, rather than staring at the screen for hours like I used to with TV.

Hannah: New Media Executive
Heidi: Senior Web Producer, TV
Scott: Freelance production artist/coder
Rob: Software developer, Entrepreneur
Evan: Print/web designer

Hannah Eaves is a periodic film journalist with a long, steady background in film, video and new media. Her writing has appeared in SOMA magazine, the Santa Cruz Sentinel, Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary Film, and online at GreenCine, PopMatters, Grist and elsewhere. She currently tries to keep her head above water as Director of New Media at Link TV, a Peabody Award-winning national satellite television station. In her spare time she dreams about her old, "laid back" Australian life, and the healing qualities of Victoria Bitter.

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