Welcome to the future of HTPCs. In the past years, My Media Experience has been focusing on the world of home theater PCs as they have been one of the best ways to create an ultimate media experience in your living room.
Now, it is time to take a look into the future to discuss how the home entertainment industry will be developing and how media centers fit into the big picture.
The home entertainment industry is in a major transition at the moment. When I started my home theater PC hobby over 10 years ago with a modded XBOX and XBMP media player, it was not even possible to decode 1080p HD video on any device.
5 years ago it cost thousands of dollars to decode 1080p video, while in the past couple of years it has been possible with a $300 computer. Today, you can do it for $99, with Apple TV for example.
Generally, what connected consumers want is:
“I want a connected home in which I can consume content anytime, anywhere on any device, using a simple interface. I want to be able to manage this from any device but I want the governance and operations to support this to be centrally controlled.”
Unfortunately, this need is not really fulfilled by today’s home theaters. The entire ecosystem for home theater systems is not working well. An average consumer can’t hook up their equipment without preparing for a technical troubleshooting, remote control programming and general confusion.
What Does the Future Look Like Today?
Before we go into details, have a look at the following video I created to illustrate the direction home theater computers could be heading in the coming years.
All the media files are located on a back-end media server, which does all the heavy lifting such as transcoding the media files. Then, I can watch media files in my living room with devices such as HTPC, Apple TV2, LG Smart TV, Google TV or Roku. Alternately, I can remotely stream the media with iPad, iPhone, Android or Windows Phone.
Let’s break down what this means for home theater computers.
Anytime, Anywhere on Any Device
Cloud computing has been the direction in which the connected home has been moving in the past couple of years. The popularity of all-in-one media centers has been declining steadily while media streamers such as Apple TV and Roku have become more and more popular. Unfortunately, not all the content is available online or not everyone has fast enough broadband connections, so local storage is still needed.
Therefore, many clients and one server (and one database) is the way to go.
It does not make sense anymore to manage both front-end and back-end on the same computer, as technology has gotten smaller, cheaper and more powerful.
The advantage of this approach is obvious. You copy a new movie to the server and all the clients will have the same movie available at the same time.
Many people watch movies on the road, so they convert and copy files to their portable devices. This is not necessary as you can access your local network remotely and let the back-end server to transcode the video for the portable device.
Some people might say that mobile devices are getting so powerful these days that transcoding is not needed anymore. However, it will still take many years before everyone can have fast enough internet connections to play 1080p movies, so until then we still need transcoding.
XBMC has always been about interface, so it is probably representing cutting edge stuff from the user interface point of view.
Many media streamers have a mediocre user interface, which are typically slow and complicated to use. Media Centers such as XBMC have the advantage of being highly customizable, and are very responsive, even on slower computers.
Windows Media Center has been a good choice, but as Microsoft has already limited the development of MCE years ago, I would not count too much on it even if it was to be included as an additional package in Windows 8.
In order to be able to consume videos anywhere, anytime and on any device, you will need cloud services to provide storage of content and a physical server that advertises itself automatically to other clients running Plex, XBMC or other supported software.
1. Cloud services such as Spotify, Hulu, Netflix and so on
- Provides storage of content
- Add-on applications to integrate services with the client front-ends
2. A physical server (Windows Home Server, NAS or HTPC)
- Physical location of TV tuner devices
- Alternative storage for content such as home videos
- Central database to maintain user’s preferences
- Engine for transcoding the content to the clients
- Single upgrade point for the entire ecosystem
A central server will also have a transcoding option to stream to devices over lower bandwidth connections. Transcoding is also needed in local networks if you are running a client that, for example is not capable of playing 1080p video.
Ultimately, Apple is already doing all of this with their closed ecosystem which consists of their iCloud services, iTunes, iDevices, Apple TV and AirPlay technologies.
It’s All About the Ecosystem
So, can a HTPC fulfill the requirements described earlier? Not as an all-in-one box next to your TV, but as an ecosystem for your media experience.
In the future, the role of HTPCs is shifting towards the one server, multiple clients model. Therefore, the media server will be forming the brains of the home theater ecosystem, streaming from the server to its clients.
Home theater computers are not just about hardware. Rather, it’s the integration of hardware (media streamer vs server), software (XBMC, Plex, etc.), and services (Hulu, Netflix, Spotify, etc.) that will offer the best possible media experience.
The Operating System for the Living Room
In order to integrate the hardware, software and services, we’ll need some kind of operating system for the living room. Unfortunately, there is no universal platform in sight for the foreseeable future, because every major player in the industry such as Apple, Google and Microsoft want to make sure that rival companies do not get control over their market.
Thus, home theater enthusiasts have an opportunity to build their own ecosystem that would realize this potential. Sure, this ecosystem would not be ready for mainstream because of all the bugs and required tweaking, but it will make sure that the HTPC community will be thriving in the future, too.
So, those people who are saying that HTPCs will die, are only looking at home theater computers as clients.
As a conclusion, home theater PCs will not be an all-in-one solution, but an ecosystem with a common operating system for the living room:
- Media streamers as frontends with the first screen (TV)
- iPads and mobile devices as the second screen
- Home media server as the back-end
- Cloud services for online media
It is the home media server that all the big players are missing. They are building their cloud services, but the reality is that the Internet infrastructure is not developed enough to handle the digital media revolution.
As a side note, we should not forget Apple’s ecosystem either. The wireless iPad screen mirroring via the AirPlay supported device looks very interesting. Apple already has an installed base with iPhones and iPads which has enough performance to play 1080p video.
If Apple gets AirPlay functionality as a standard to televisions, more people will have the capability to stream content from the cloud services. What Google manages to do with their Google TV remains to be seen.
Plex is Showing the Future Direction
Many of you know that I am a big fan of XBMC and the Eden 11 version has been a great step forward. However, when it comes to cutting edge technologies, XBMC has not brought anything revolutionary to the table in the past years.
I think the most up-to-date ecosystem at the moment is Plex. They seem to understand the current development trends and modify their products to best fit to the customer needs.
Plex has developed a media server with remote streaming capabilities, which allows media content to be streamed to front-end devices such as mobile phones or smart TVs. The remote streaming does not only work on the local home network, but anywhere in the world. This means that you can start watching a movie with your TV and then continue seamlessly watching it later with your iPad at the hotel during your business trip.
In order to be able to watch the movie over a 3G connection or a slow WLAN connection at the hotel, the movie needs to be transcoded. So, if you have a full 1080p movie on your server, Plex will transcode the movie on the fly making it play smoothly on your iPad.
Some of you might argue, “What’s the point of remote streaming, because HTPCs are meant to be located in the living rooms.” To my mind, this is not entirely correct anymore. We started from time shifting with PVR devices and now we are facing the place shifting trend.
The best way to experience the home theater ecosystem today is with the combination of a Plex Media Server and an XBMC Media Center.
In the future, home theater computers will be all about streaming from the server to their clients.
Front-end devices will get smaller and smaller or become embedded inside TVs, but you’ll still need to stream the content from somewhere, so computers are still needed in the home theater ecosystem.
To conclude, it is not about the media center; it’s about the media experience.