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In Search of the Über Set-top Box

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We have many holiday traditions around our house, and one of them is talking about the latest consumer electronics. So as I was sitting on my couch the other night, staring at my cable set-top box (STB) and TiVo DVR, a thought came to me – where is the next-generation STB that we’ve been hearing about for at least the past three years? You know, the über STB with HD, TiVo, networking, storage and more, the one that will be the center of home entertainment?

I’ve done a considerable amount of looking and I have yet to find it. I know about the latest TiVo boxes, Apple TV, Vudu, Microsoft’s Media Center and the numerous ways that I could build something and get close to what I desire, but there is no one, integrated product that has the features I want.

What do I want, exactly? To start, the next-gen STB has to be drop-dead gorgeous, as it will more than likely occupy a prominent place in my living room and I’ll have to look at it for some time. So I expect great design, reminiscent of the latest Apple product, with a simple-to-use user interface. It should also be compact in size — no larger than a standard STB today — and work with multiple universal remotes, such as the Harmony line made by Logitech.

I need high-definition output (1080p) with a TiVo DVR (not a clone) built in and an HD-DVD/Blu-ray player. Beyond these features (which I consider table stakes), I’d like to see the next-gen STB have at least 500GB of storage, which could be expanded through the use of a firewire or USB 2.0 disk drives, as well as slots for an SD memory card that can be used to upload files and photos. The box needs to run a Samba-like fileserver to either allow access to all of the content on these storage devices from any computer in my house or allow me to use this storage as part of my file backup system.

On the networking and connectivity front, the next-gen STB would need to function as a wireless router and switch, providing Internet connectivity, firewall, anti-virus, anti-spyware and malware protection. An IEEE802.11b/g/n wireless access point and at least five separate gigabit Ethernet ports for local connections are also desired features. For video connectivity, I’d expect an HDMI interface and, at some point, support for a wireless HDMI interface.

Beyond features, the STB would, of course, need to be able to access content. Now I consume both music and video content, so this STB would have to be able to stream music, and a built-in cradle for my iPod would be a plus. As for video content, I know that most of what I watch on TV would either come from my provider’s walled garden or from shows I would request, on demand. I’d like to be able to use this next-gen STB to access content streamed via IPTV from any content provider on the Internet, but until the carriers here in the U.S. deploy enough fiber or VDSL to provide a reliable 12 megabits per second to my house (I’m imagining that I’ll want two simultaneous HD sources of content at approximately six megabits per second each), I will stick with my cable provider.

Finally, while I am a fan of on-demand and streaming Internet video, I understand that all of the content that I want to watch is not accessible yet. Call me a video quality snob, but I’m not ready to plop down on the couch and watch a small, grainy video from YouTube on my plasma screen. That being said, I expect the next-gen STB to have the proper codecs and client support for Adobe’s Flash, Microsoft’s Silverlight, Apple’s Quicktime and others for watching Internet video. Typing in URLs of Internet video with a remote control would be tiresome, so there should be a mechanism by which I can transfer a video playlist from a local computer to the STB – imagine surfing to the content you want in a browser and dragging and dropping URLs onto an icon of the STB, which then interprets them as menu choices.

OK it’s a long wish list, but it’s that time of year. Anyone care to take a stab at when I may have my next-gen STB wishes fulfilled? And from which vendor? Maybe you’ll start a new holiday tradition at your house.

33 Responses to “In Search of the Über Set-top Box”

  1. Allan:
    Great post. I do not agree with your hardware requirements as I think you have included too many components. Also the cost of such a device you mention is prohibitively expensive 800 – 1000$+ which puts it out of the range of most people.

    For now I use my mac mini + eyetv to do some of the things you mentioned…. Accessing network content in frontrow can be as easy as adding a shortcut to the network share in the Movies folder.

    Sure HDDVD/BluRay would be good and a decent TiVo style HD recorder / Cable card support would rock. But for that there is seriously no option now and somebody has to step up. Plus the high def dvd formats are prohibitively expensive hardware wise.

    I see a great market opportunity for either TiVo or Apple or Microsoft to step up. Of these 3, Microsoft with its software platform strategy seems the most likely to fail short term – Although long term that might be a good strategy. Tivo has got the recording and web media integration part almost right. Its also got the penetration in the living room, which Apple and to a lesser extent MS dont have (Despite what Microsoft will tell you – The 360 is a gaming console that non gamers will not touch). What it needs to do is become better at using external hdds or network storage and become a true media centre. TiVo also needs to replace the cable STB which it looks like they are working on. Apple, Well they need to buy TiVo or add cable card support and also open up the AppleTV. – The MacMini and the AppleTV are such promising platforms. Being closed (Both hardware and software wise) are causing its demise.

    Also I have realised that to do all the things that I need, I am forced to have a wireless mouse and keyboard – I dont know how many people are comfortable with that setup in the living room. However, The remote like the cellphones 5 way navigator or scroll wheel is clunky to use for webcontent and really are not great replacments for the mouse. For the cell phone the answer is clear – The touch screen is the only viable input for the mobile web. What will it be for the Set Top Box/ Media Centre.

  2. Jesse Kopelman

    @Allan – You are oversimplifying. How many people do you know who have their DVD player built into their main TV? Can you even buy a 30+” screen with such a thing? Last time I checked, most peoples’ washers and dryers were still separate units. The reason you need 5 remotes is because there is no standardized user interface for A/V gear, not because you have multiple boxes. Having modular components with standardized interfaces, like we do in the PC world, is the best solution for anything where new features and capabilities are constantly being developed. Uber-box is the solution for some, even many, but certainly not for all, and probably not even for the majority.

  3. Paul Schneider

    When it comes to streaming media and Web video, maybe the answer isn’t a better set-top box, but rather network-based services. There’s one already launched by Grande Communications in Texas that delivers Web-based video applications to the television through any existing set-top box.

  4. Allan Leinwand

    @Peter Drier – we’ve come to the same thoughts… Unified components = green planet :)

    @Brian – All-in-ones are good ideas for some products if executed properly – and all I want is my home entertainment in one place. The iPhone, Blackberry and many cars sure do put everything they are trying to do in one basket. But, traditionally, you are right, picking best of breed components produces a higher quality solution.

    @Mark – thanks – great info.

    @Jeffrey – when Tivo updates their software every 18 months, just push it to my uber-box. I’m assuming the hardware won’t need to be upgraded that fast if it’s done right.

    @ronald – now you’re talking! I included a firewall in my solution and if it’s an Internet router you’ll have DHCP, but I like your additions!

    @Jesse – I agree with you on concept, but to I firmly believe to make technology successful in a consumer marketplace you have to make it disappear (I know I am plagiarizing someone here, but don’t recall who).
    When we can have best-of-breed that all talk together and are controlled together then we have the best of all worlds. I’m not holding my breath as I sit here staring at my five remote controls :)

    @Ryno – Good points, but I still want my wireless Internet router built-in here. STBs of today are Internet connected, there is not much of a hardware difference to get to what I suggest. I was suggesting that a file server as well, but used Samba as my example. Any NAS/CIFS server would be fine :)

    @batman22 – Tell us how it works out!

    @joe – Thanks for the link – I agree that the next-gen STB needs to be able to access Internet content. What happens when you blow up that video to my plasma screen?

  5. Allan, funny thing, I spent all day yesterday researching (almost) this very topic. But first, after a couple Google searches I discovered — believe it or not — that the Vista laptop I had just bought my wife (and thought it was overkill for her needs) would be the right choice.

    I found a good tutorial on Lifehacker.com where you use the free Media Center that comes with Vista Home Premium (typically preloaded in new computers) as your DVR that has zero subscription fees, unlike TiVo. Obviously you hook up a TV tuner, but the key is a networked Xbox 360 (all you need is an Xbox USB network adapter) which serves as your media streamer to your TV. I don’t have an Xbox 360 and at its current price point have no intention of getting one soon, so I won’t get to experience this setup, but I will try the Media Center with TV Tuner. Have heard nothing but great reviews.

    As the lifehacker article says, add on an Xbox- or Vista-specific remote control and as long as you’re comfy with your computer next to the cable in, basically your Xbox 360 streaming everything off your Vista machine (which can be anywhere else) might as well be your “STB” to your TV. It’s as easy as it gets right now.

    I know this might not fulfill every bit of your wants (apparently there are legality issues with HDTV), but I honestly think Vista MC + Xbox 360 is a major, yet quite simple, step in the right direction of where you wanna go with this.

    And only last week I was highly critical of needing to buy a Vista machine for my wife who really only needs it for Web, Word, and PPT.

  6. You may have better luck by simply configuring a mac mini with elgato. Your total setup costs are around $1k (give or take) but you get everything.

    Mac mini( Drop dead gorgeous or simply beautiful – whatever you want to call it)
    Elgato Tuner + the works.
    MiniStack for etternal Hard drive (extensible).
    Has file server, wifi, 1080i output, digital audio, etc built in

    THe question is only of the right software (if front row was extensible, it would be easy, but there are OSS alternatives) – and you are pretty much there.

    I am missing a cool-ass remote – try Remotebuddy (IO spirit) with the WiiMote and you have that as well!!

    Hmm.. what else? yes – maintenance of this setup sucks.. truly sucks, it wont be completely reliable – esp DVR, HD programming etc etc.. but its atleast 70% of the way there.

  7. Just going this through myself. I moved away from Media Center, when I finally went for a HD screen. Lame cable card and HD support.

    So I opted for a 2 box solution. A very pricey S3 HD Tivo and Hacked an Apple TV. Still missing a few things but for the most part does the job. A feature marriage of Apple TV, TiVO and Slingbox I think would be in order. Apple should handle the hardware and human interface, TiVo the backend algorithms, Slingbox for getting your data from A to B. Sage, Myth and other just don’t cut it on the interface side.

    I hate physical media, so I don’t agree with BlueRay or HDDVD being a necessity for an ultimate box. I think Digital is the way to go. I do hope Microsoft is part of that HDDVD/Blueray conspiracy. I think the real problem to Hollywood owning/screwing everyone is wrapped up in Physical media.

    I don’t agree with an integrated router being a solution either. I am also a networking geek so this does not bode well. It will also generate a lot of necessary heat. I think it should have 1 or more Gig interfaces though with the ability to do link aggregation (with LACP support). Hope for (2) 1GB interfaces but maybe up to the standard aggregate of 8 would be nice. Wireless a must yes, a/b/g/n. Maybe some standard NAS capability.

    I dont think SD cards are necessary, but what the hell.

    On the interface side USB 3.0, FW400, FW3200, HDMI

    Also a big fan of place shifting. Multi-room viewing would be a must, but I would also like to extend that to my iPod/iPhone, other Phone, Computer and even out to a car unit.

    Another huge must. OpenAPI and supported developer community. I think this is one feature that could win the battle. I do like RSS, Pod/Vid casts and yes even the crappy YouTube quality.

  8. Jesse Kopelman

    Why do we need all that in one box? Modular is a lot better in that it allows less expensive expansion, upgrades, and replacement of broken parts. What we really need is not uber-boxes, but boxes that actually talk to each other. The standards are already in place and have been for years, but as always devices manufactures have resisted and when they haven’t the network providers have! It will all work out eventually, but it is quite frustrating to know that it is only wrong-thinking by megacorporations that is depriving us of having it now.

  9. Just to add a little more, while we are at it.
    How about DHCP, DNS, IMAP, LDAP, CALDAV, Web servers, FIREWALL?
    DHCP for all those Notebooks which come and go into the house.
    DNS, with more than 10 systems hosts files are a pain, and our ISP does not know how to do it reliably.
    IMAP want to do email from all the systems in the house.
    LDAP Family addresses, with family members friends separated.
    CALDAV need one calendar, shared todo accessible all over the house.
    WEB, Pictures for Grand parents, got that up before there was any web service and it’s all automated.
    Firewall, don’t need to get all that spam onto my network.

    Oh and next I will integrate a voice mail server, I’m tired of sequential access.
    Maybe LDAP integrated phone system?

    This has just accumulated over 15years, last one was the Caldav server. But one gets used to it and the convinces it provides. Backups and all is automated with, first stage and 2nd stage with revisions. Even most systems have raid 1||5 enabled.

    This is just what our family server provides and which I would hate to give up. I know I would not have to do that, but why not integrate it with a BIG STB (Family server).

  10. There is this group of uber-geeks working on a Linux base STB which they are trademarking it an HDA “Home Digital Assistant”.

    http://www.amahi.org

    Now they haven’t starting working on the video part yet, but I doubt they will have no problems with that because they are a bunch former of Nvidia and Transmeta engineers. The head ubergeek, Carlos, was the first guy (working Linus Tovalds) to get Linux ported to AMD’s 64 bit processor before there was a chip etched. An he is one of the founding fathers of system Power Management before anyone thought that was important.

    Anyhow, I have seen the box they have. Access all your content (I mean everything not just videos and MP3s) anywhere on the planet, securely over VPN. It provides security, network monitoring (see what your kids are doing), remote management, streaming server, plug-in applications, home blogs to manage your personal life (with only your family), calendars and so much more. My favorite is they are working on a bit.torrent plug-in so it can download and share content within a private virtual network.

    The HDA is more like a corporate IT infrastructure packed into a little box. The nice thing about it is they are trying to keep it all open source so that geeks can customize their HDA. While regular consumers can have a vanilla HDA for their home. Instead of the blackbox approach everyone else is doing.

    You can get the latest production release for free from their site and load it on any old computer. If you need it to look pretty, you can drop your computer guts into that $300 case that Vidabox has. These guys are working on a hardware version that is…oh so pretty as it is compact and innovative. Let’s just say it isn’t a repackaged PC.

    And no I don’t work with these guys. I am just very excited about what they are doing and think everything out there right now REALLY SUCKS.

  11. Sounds like an all-in-one printer. Something like that may eventually exist, but it’ll be mediocre quality in all the components, otherwise it’ll cost too much for the general populace. Haven’t people learned that “all-in-one” devices just aren’t a good idea?

  12. Allan Leinwand

    Vito – 18 months seems like a long time, but if we’re talking about Cisco/SA or MOT producing this box, that may make sense. Ideally, this should go to market with the blessing of the cable companies and telcos, right?

  13. @Allan – We’re definitely on similar pages. Can’t say I’d want the cable co’s mixing into some of the other areas you mentioned though. I’ve seen too many purely stupid features built into cable boxes over the years (buy a car on channel #1073, literally) to have faith in their ability to add the useful features before the ones they (wrongly) think will be profitable. (and if they are profitable, I feel a deep sorrow about the mental wellbeing of this country..)

    Cablevision specifically was the worst at this.. They’d VOD anything, and try to charge for it.. and lets not forget the “games” they added which you could play with their remote control (my c64 had better games 20+ years ago)

    So keep it as simple as possible is my dream. Take the guts of a Scientific Atlanta 8300HD DVR, add a linksys b/g/n router, DD-WRT router software, the Docsis cable modem, and the VOIP box, and pile them together. Heck, I’d probably save enough electricity a month by combining them to qualify it for EnergyStar bonus points.

  14. vito palermo

    Allan,

    You can have it in less than 18 months if you’re willing to fund the intial round of financing. All the pieces of technology are available to build what you want and more.

  15. Allan Leinwand

    @Wimbers – To me, IPTV is a technology being deployed by the RBOCs and is different and competitive to Video delivered over the Internet (Joost, Hulu, etc.), but I get your basic point. Agreed on the SlingBox place-shifting technology, I should have thought of that feature too. On the iTunes server idea, that is what I meant by a music server. Think iTunes, Rhapsody, Real, etc.

    @timheuer – close… where is this in the market and how much?

  16. wow. long list. i say good luck seeing that for at least 2 years. my guess is you’ll see something near it sooner without the wireless routing and all that.

    but to add to your list i think you missed the ability to expand upon that 500gb with external usb/firewire drives. i’m right there with ya though, this is probably the #1 device i need. i’m holding off buying hdtv because this thing doesn’t exist yet.

  17. your problem sounds familiar, your wishlist however differs so much from all the wishlists out there.
    for instance, tivo? USA Only. iptv has many possibilities, like hulu.com, joost.com. if it would provide an interface (open) to plug in to those kind of initiatives, me happy! i would like slingbox functionality also. itunes server capabilities – dlna/upnp compatible to make sure i can plug other stand alone players into the network using the ultimate set-top box as a source etc.

    you see, that is why it does not exist, and never will. too many choices to make,