To Serve Man

What really stood out at this year's CEDIA in Denver was the number of companies showing media servers. They have certainly grown in popularity, especially within the custom-installation world. Not that many years ago, media servers were the exception, and now they are the norm for those ultra-high-end, multi-zone, music/video systems. As high-resolution downloadable media (audio and video) become more available, then media servers are likely to be our main, if not our only, source device.

In fact, many believe that optical media has a limited shelf life at this point, and that includes Blu-ray. I read a fleeting report online a couple weeks ago about a Samsung representative (the name was not disclosed), who supposedly said that Blu-ray discs have about five good years before they will be obsolete. I could understand a representative from Toshiba making such a remark, but Samsung has Blu-ray players to sell. Obviously, he wasn't from sales and marketing.

Still, if this is true, it should give us pause about investing heavily into yet another hard-media format. That said, nothing looks as good as a Blu-ray. Whatever HD downloads exist—and they are limited—most are either 720p or 1080i, nothing that remotely resembles the quality of a Blu-ray disc. I have rented a few HD movies for my Apple TV. While it is convenient, it's pretty much the same quality as I get from DirectTV. In both cases, you are dealing with lots of compression and less than full 1080p resolution.

Media servers may well be the storage and playback devices of the near future, but they are hardly accessible to the average consumer. Yes, I am a big Apple fan, and you will hear me mention that name often. I believe the Apple TV is about the most accessible media server on the planet…at the moment.

Sure, I saw some incredibly impressive media servers at CEDIA, and I'll be talking about them in my blog, as well as evaluating a few of them in standalone reviews on UAV. However, most are über-expensive, starting around $3500 and going up from there. The cost is understandable considering the extremely advanced management systems and super-cool interfaces.

Niveus Media was showing a new server with slots for 16 1TB drives. You can just imagine the price tag on that! Now, it would be terrific to have all that hard-drive space to store your Blu-ray movies. Oh, but wait, it's illegal to rip Blu-ray discs—and technically, DVDs, too. Just some minor legal loopholes must be filled before those massive media servers can actually store enough HD content to fill up those 128 terabits of storage.

As impressed as I was with the awesome systems I saw at CEDIA—and I can’t wait for the opportunity to test some of them—I find myself in the wake of all the excitement and marketing hyperbole appreciating my Apple TV even more for its simplicity, convenience, and economy.

If you like iTunes and have most of your media already stored there, the Apple TV is a slam dunk. A quick and simple sync is all it takes to put whatever music, movies, photos, and podcasts you want on the Apple TV. Moreover, you can buy or rent HD movies directly from Apple TV without going near your computer. As of this week, HDTV shows are now available for download to your Apple TV.

I've even shot vacation videos on HD camcorders, edited them in iMovie, and transferred them to the Apple TV for playback in my theater. The videos look fantastic since they never left the digital domain, nor were they heavily compressed to fit on a DVD.

Apple TV is even more impressive when you consider the cost. iMovie comes as standard software with all Apple computers, and Apple TV sells for the exorbitant price of $329 with 160GB of storage.

Media servers may soon be one of the most important devices in our home-entertainment systems. The Lamborghini servers are great to look at and dream about, but it’s the Honda servers that will appeal most to the masses and sell in great numbers. Apple gets it, and it did so early on. It will be interesting to see when some of these fancy media-server companies start tricking down their technology into more simplified and less-costly products. I mean, why should only the rich and famous have the coolest toys?