Increasing droves of con-sumers are installing networks in their homes to accomplish boring feats such as sharing printers or perhaps more diverting applications like music sharing. But, not until I reviewed the offerings from SkipJam did I fully understand how much entertainment a home network can provide. SkipJam has designed a platform-agnostic networking system in which a single wholehouse configuration can work seamlessly with an existing CAT-5 (Ethernet), Wi-Fi, coaxial cable, or power-line network—or any combination of these different standards. You will need a properly functioning network in place, independent of the SkipJam installation. But, if you want to add one more location wirelessly, for example, it's no problem.
The SkipJam iMedia Center slides into your home theater, or anywhere you have one or more source components you want to stream. You wire the outputs of, say, your DVD player, TiVo, and satellite-TV tuner into the back, and the iMedia Center passes them along to the TV. The iMedia Center can then encode these analog audio/video signals to either MPEG-2 or MPEG-4 at selectable bit rates to best balance quality and available network speed. It sends these signals via the home network to an iMedia Player that is connected to a viewing location elsewhere in the house. There is also an in-wall player for professional installations, as well as an audio-only player.
Naturally, to ensure the best quality and performance, you should connect via whichever type of network offers the highest data throughput. CAT-5 is the best all-around option, with an effective throughput of approximately 60 megabits per second, followed by about 30 mbps for coaxial, 8 to 15 mbps for Wi-Fi, and 1 to 4 mbps for power line. (Improvements for power-line networking technology are reportedly in the works.) My house came extensively wired with coax. With the addition of some high-grade splitters and a modem at each termination, plus lots of testing and troubleshooting, SkipJam president Michael Spilo and I officially established a coax home network. For optimum reliability, we also drilled a single hole between the office and the home theater to connect my PC via CAT-5 to the primary iMedia Center.
Blasters, Blasters Everywhere
In military fashion, we broke down and rebuilt my home theater from scratch, which also gave me the opportunity to minimize and reorganize my rats' nest of wiring. We also took the time to set up bypasses, so that we need not fully depend on the SkipJam system to watch DVDs and such. With this password-protected setup, we named each connected room and specified the audio/video devices for each. The available library/database of IR codes seems somewhat limited, so we taught the SkipJam remote the IR codes for each device individually, following the clear onscreen prompts. Inevitably, we encountered some incompatibility between the SkipJam remote and the original remotes for my components. So we mapped certain functions onto the SkipJam controller's assignable letter keys. All SkipJam units include both an infrared (IR) and a radio-frequency (RF) remote control. The IR unit is included primarily as a convenience and also to help you program any universal IR remotes you want to keep to operate SkipJam and the rest of your components. The rechargeable RF remote is also a cordless telephone that offers exceptionally long range. The network stores the command codes for the RF remote, so, not only can you control a device from any connected room in the house, but any SkipJam remote control will work identically.
Intrepid consumers may wish to tackle the SkipJam installation themselves, but most will want professional support due to all of the details. During installation, the SkipJam creates specific power-on/-off macro commands for each device, taking into account the necessary inputs and outputs, startup times, etc. Each box comes with three wired IR blasters, which are mandatory for manipulation of IR-controlled electronics. Tucked away, they aren't too much of an eyesore. But, in one instance, the signal from the SkipJam IR remote to the iMedia Center confused one of my nearby IR source components.
The SkipJam software installs on the PC. It easily controls the entire system from the desktop and lets you watch absolutely any connected source on your PC monitor. I've long lamented the dearth of DirecTV tuners for the PC while antenna and cable are so well represented, but I can now watch DirecTV on my computer screen to my heart's content. I can even burn CD or DVD copies of programs that SkipJam's PVR captures. For the PVR mode to work, your PC has to be powered on. It demands a good deal of bandwidth, as data travels from the source component, to the computer, and on to the final destination, instead of using a more direct connection between the source component and the networked viewing location. The PVR's buffering function creates a digital file of everything it "sees," including channel changes.
SkipJam's program guide offers unique features. For example, it can filter programs of a given genre by length. So, hour-long drama TV shows won't appear when you are searching for dramatic feature films. You can also share music and pictures. Since you are linked to the Internet, wholehouse Internet radio is a snap. You can browse lots of free channels at various bit rates under the Music menu. An FM tuner is built in and requires only the addition of an antenna.
You should be sure that the system works before your installer leaves, and then you should expect some troubleshooting, either by yourself, over the phone, or on a return visit.
During my testing, I must have seemed quite the broken record, as I uttered the W-word so many times at varied volumes. Once a source component is engaged at a location, the SkipJam menu screens display it in a picture-in-picture window, with audio. It's a breeze to set up slide shows and add audio (radio, MP3s, etc.), and "stacking" assigns the use of the Skip button to whichever function you set up last. There is no source gear in my exercise room, but I can now watch programming from the TiVo downstairs as I use the treadmill. We are a multiple-DirecTV-tuner house; for better response time and performance, SkipJam is smart enough to connect me to the closest unit (as long as it is available). Because communication is two-way, you can also use the PC Access function to see and interact with your PC remotely from a TV, with a clean, sharp zoom. Local weather is at your fingertips, with an onscreen news-headline ticker to come. And your Internet-enabled laptop (with the SkipJam software and the proper codes) can also display live DirecTV, or any source, virtually anywhere via Wi-Fi. Truly, I can now control my entire network from the Internet—whether at Starbucks, a hotel, or the office.
To get the most out of SkipJam, you need to use it fully and properly, which requires some education. Kids often learn the technology faster than adults do, but your spouse might be the big obstacle, if mine is any indication. She tends to work around SkipJam and operates our TiVo/DirecTV tuner with the original remotes. She sometimes leaves a device powered on, which screws up the all-important sequencing. Take a tip from a pro: Convince her of the benefits, i.e., "what's in it for her," be it the wealth of movies now accessible from any TV or wholehouse playback of every song she's ever heard.
For a product like this to succeed, it needs to work painlessly, nigh-invisibly: Press play, and it plays, quickly and without incident. In my home, that was often not the case, from the bandwidth issues that I encountered to problems with remote-control buttons. It would be a boon if SkipJam could detect the power status of connected gear, but it would also greatly raise the complexity—and the price. In the meantime, the underlying software is evolving rapidly, so my complaints today might already be history by the time you read this.
• Sends audio/video signals just about anywhere (inside or outside the house) via any home network
• Adds a long list of convenience features, despite its share of technical bumps along the way