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The March 6, 2006 Issue Provided by System Dynamics Inc.
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Media and Broadband In Our Condo: Some Answers, More Questions

We have previously written about our ongoing project to equip our Sanibel condo to exemplify the capabilities provided by many of the technologies we write about. Our earlier articles covered the more straight-forward projects including providing a PC and broadband connectivity for our guests.

Open walls in our condo --> Click for larger pictureBetween August 2005 and January 2006, we completely remodeled our condo, tearing out some walls and installing new wiring throughout. This was a perfect opportunity to consider what wiring and systems we should install to support networked media and communications—video, audio, data and telephone services—both for now and for the future. In the previous article in this series, we reported on the start of our project.

Media and communications turned out to be far more complex than PCs and broadband. Everything seems to be in flux. Television is transitioning from analog to digital and from standard definition to high definition; during the transition, selecting the appropriate cabling and equipment for audio and video is quite challenging.

Consumer electronics, PC and video services companies are encroaching on each other's turf. It is difficult to assess the impact of emerging technologies from Microsoft and Intel such as Vista and Viiv, and emerging standards for consumer electronics devices such as DLNA.

Remodeling gave us the opportunity to pull new cabling in the walls, and we wanted to select good equipment for ourselves and our condo guests. So we had to make the best choices based on what we know now. And there may still be some wild cards in the deck.

As with our home, we chose to plan and manage the project ourselves rather than hiring an integrator. As industry analysts, we have the benefit of hearing many people's views of the future. In planning the cabling and equipment, we wanted to apply our best judgments of future needs and technologies.

We found that we needed to think about two kinds of cabling: the long cables in the walls, and the short ones between pieces of equipment. It's difficult and expensive to change the cables in the walls, much easier to replace the ones between boxes. Today these cables seem to come from different worlds—A/V cables connect A/V equipment, networking cables connect PC equipment—and it's hard to create a "bridge" between them. At this point, we have not interconnected the PC and A/V equipment in our condo, but hope we've installed the suitable infrastructure in the walls to do so in the future.

This article is a summary of the full story on our website.


Planning

Our planning included several steps:

  • Defining the media and communications needs for our guests and for ourselves
  • Figuring out what technologies and services will be available to meet those needs in the future, and which of these we want to use
  • Deciding what cabling infrastructure to provide to enable these services -- both for today's largely analog services and tomorrow's digital services
  • Deciding which services to subscribe to now, and which to postpone until later
  • Deciding which devices to buy now -- both to provide today's services and to have a reasonable prospect of compatibility with tomorrow's services

User Needs and Technologies

Computer desk in our condo --> Click for larger pictureOur first step was to define the needs: what facilities and services we want to provide for guests staying in our condo, and what in addition we want for ourselves. During the first phase of this project, we defined the PC and Internet needs, and identified several key technologies including Virtual Private Networking (VPN) and Dynamic DNS (DDNS). We quickly installed a PC and a cable modem, and set up wired and wireless networking for us and our guests.

Plasma screen on top of media cabinet --> Click for larger pictureAs we started planning for the remodeling project, with the opportunity to install new cabling, we addressed the additional needs for telephone, audio and video services. Since we rent our condo in a competitive market, we decided to include high-definition television, surround sound and distributed audio in our planning. We wanted to provide future support for broadband telephone service, digital telephones and video telephony. Our website has a detailed discussion of the media and communications needs and the key technologies including structured cabling, A-BUS multi-room audio, digital telephone services, flat-panel screens and digital video interfaces, digital television, PVR and Windows Media Center Edition.

Cabling Infrastructure

We decided to run new low-voltage cabling throughout our condo. Although several emerging technologies based on existing wiring may provide a lower-cost solution in the future, we felt that spending the money to provide Category 5e and RG6 cabling was a prudent investment.

Low-voltage outlets behind the computer desk --> Click for larger pictureStructured cabling panel --> Click for larger pictureWe decided to provide outlet plates for the computer desk; the media cabinet (the main entertainment center); in the kitchen; and in the front and back of the two bedrooms. We ran Cat 5e to all locations, providing outlets for data at all locations and for telephone service at most; we also specified at least one spare Cat 5e at each location. We ran RG6 coaxial cable to any location we thought might have a TV.

We prepared detailed drawings and schedules for the low-voltage cabling, panels and outlets. We selected the Leviton Structured Media Center panel to centralize the low-voltage cabling, and created a diagram of the panel layout. We prepared detailed plans for each outlet plate, specifying the outlets at each location.

Russound A-KP2 A-BUS keypad module --> Click for larger pictureLoudspeakers and lighting over the bed --> Click for larger pictureWe had decided to use A-BUS for distributed audio (see a description of A-BUS) and worked with Russound, who introduced A-BUS to the North American market, to determine the best combination of A-BUS components for our purposes. We chose a fairly simple configuration of hubs, keypads and loudspeakers, and documented the plan for our electrician.

Our planning for cabling and outlets is described in more detail on our website.

Services

For our guests and ourselves, we're currently providing the following services:

  • High-speed Internet access, using a cable modem and a broadband router with wired and wireless connections
  • A desktop PC
  • Digital and high-definition cable television services, using a cable set-top box and two flat-screen TV sets
  • PVR functionality in the set-top box
  • Analog telephone service

For our own use, we're working to create a VPN link between our condo and home networks.

In the future, we expect to enable Windows Media Center Edition on the PC, and resolve the outstanding issues with the VPN link. We expect to install digital telephone service fairly soon, and have wired the telephone outlets so they can be used with analog telephones today and with digital telephones once those become suitable for consumer use.


Interconnect Cabling for Digital Television

Our most complex decisions had to do with flat-screen TVs and home theater. The United States is in the middle of a transition from delivering television services with traditional analog signals to using new digital signals, and from standard-definition formats to high-definition formats. We decided to equip our condo with equipment and services prepared for high-definition television.

Interconnect cabling is used to connect the video and associated audio outputs from one consumer electronics A/V device to the video and audio inputs on another device. Interconnects used to be pretty simple, but the new world of digital and high-definition television has made them far more complex and confusing.

There are currently five ways of connecting video between consumer electronics devices, and five ways of connecting audio. Only the latest interconnects are digital, and only one supports audio and video in the same cable. Only high-end equipment supports the most advanced forms of interconnects. Which formats will work properly between devices can only be determined by connecting devices together and testing them.

A/V and PC equipment in our condo --> Click for larger pictureIn our condo, we need three sets of A/V interconnect cabling:

  • In the living room, we need to connect the outputs from the cable set-top box and the DVD/VCR to the inputs of the A/V receiver, and to connect the outputs of the receiver to the inputs of the plasma TV.
  • We need to connect the A/V outputs from our Media Center PC to the inputs of our A/V receiver so we can use the Media Center features on the plasma screen in the living room.
  • We'd like to be able to watch video sources from all our A/V equipment (the cable set-top box, the DVD/VCR and the Media Center PC) on the screens in the two bedrooms, so we'll need appropriate interconnects for those as well.

We spent many hours on the web and at retail stores trying to implement the best approaches to these interconnects. We returned several cables we found we didn't need or that didn't work the way we expected.

At this point in the project, we and our guests can watch high-definition television in the living room, but not as yet with the best video or audio quality. We have more work to do before we can establish interconnects between the Media Center PV, the A/V receiver and the remote screens.

We pondered the interconnect choices for months, but while the walls were open we weren't able to come to a decision on how to interconnect between the media cabinet in the living room, the Media Center PC and the bedroom TVs. We followed the electrician's suggestion to place "smurf tubes" in the walls to make it easier to run the appropriate cables once we make the decisions.

Please see the details on our website.


Remote Controls

Once all the equipment was installed and working in the living room, we found that using four remote controls—the plasma TV, the A/V receiver, the cable box and the DVD/VHS player—was pretty confusing even for us. It was far from clear which remote should be used to change channels or adjust the volume.

Harmony 688 Remote --> Click for larger pictureOne of our children is using the Logitech Harmony Remote at her home, and she suggested we buy one for our condo. There are several models of the Harmony remote, but they're all pretty similar.

With a Harmony remote, you push a single button for each standard task. For example, to watch television from the cable box in our living room, you push the "Watch TV" button. This turns on the cable box and selects the channel you want to start with; turns on the A/V receiver and selects the cable input; and turns on the plasma TV and selects the HDMI input.

The Harmony Remote is programmed through a web application. You first select the equipment and answer some questions about interconnect cabling. Then you use a USB cable to connect the remote to your PC and Harmony software on the PC programs the remote for your A/V equipment.

While not a perfect solution, the Harmony Remote works well—and sure beats having to learn to use four separate remote controls.


For More Information

( www.leviton.com ) ( www.russound.com ) ( www.logitech.com/harmony )