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Media Convergence

Convergence, the long-promised Holy Grail of consumer electronics, has arrived. At least, that’s what the industry is telling us.

Again. This time, the enabling device du jour is the network media hub — a set-top box that allows you to share files between PCs and home theater systems.

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Why do you need this? Well, consider how much you’ve invested in a fancy theater system with a big-screen television and high-fidelity speakers. Yet how often do you wind up listening to music instead on tiny computer speakers, simply because most of your music is stored on a hard drive? And do you really want to pass around a laptop to share digital photos from your last vacation?

Media hubs are meant to bring all of your PC-based entertainment into the living room. They stack on top of your existing home theater devices and connect to a TV and stereo receiver by standard video- and audio-output cables. They also include a slot for a network card for connection to your home computer network. Using a remote control and on-screen navigation menus, you can browse music and photo files stored on computers in other rooms and play them back on the television or stereo. A few units will also stream video files.

Among the new devices, Hewlett-Packard’s ew5000 Digital Media Receiver ($299) is a wireless hub-only model. The GoVideo’s D2730 ($299) serves as both DVD player and media hub with streaming capability but needs a network card to go wireless. Gateway’s similar Connected DVD Player ($249), is wireless out of the box. Once they’re up and running, media hubs can be terrific. I have hundreds of songs on my PC. With HP’s ew5000, I enjoyed an evening of rich-sounding music over my stereo system — without having to leave my guests to play DJ. Viewing photos was just as easy: The hub grabbed JPEG files off of my PC’s hard drive and showed them as thumbnail images on the TV.

As usual, though, the challenge with these devices is actually getting them to work properly. The first concern is mundane: With DVD, VCR, stereo receiver, and TiVo already in place, where are you going to jam yet another box? But a wireless network introduces bigger problems. Media hubs automatically hook themselves into unsecured wireless networks, but leaving your network unsecured is an invitation to hackers. And as soon as you turn on the appropriate security, it’s nearly impossible to get the media hubs logged on — unless you know a computer code called “Hex” or have a sympathetic techie friend.

Finally, streaming video over wireless networks is likely to disappoint. The most popular wireless standards in home networks can’t deliver a clear stream between PCs and hubs. It may be several years before the higher-capacity 802.11a standard is available at a reasonable price. Bottom line: Media convergence is indeed the wave of the future. Unfortunately, that future is still a bit out of our reach.

Sidebar: Vinyl Rocks

Burning digital music files onto a CD is fun, fast, and convenient — but let’s face it, those discs are just plain ugly. How many times have you grabbed a Sharpie and hastily scribbled a title across the face of a newly burned silver disc? By now, you’ve got a mountain of messy, hard-to-identify and obviously homemade music albums. It’s enough to make you wish for the days when records sounded good and looked cool. Fortunately, Verbatim thinks so too. Its new Digital Vinyl CD-R discs are rewriteable CDs that have the look and feel of old 45s. Kitschy and modern at once, each disc holds 80 minutes, or 700 MB, of music. Buy a pack of 10 for $10.60 (or 50 for $48). Visit Verbatim on the Web (www.verbatim.com).