Seamless home networking: still not here

CES looms with futuristic technologies, but devices are tough to coordinate

I’ll be spending next week at the Consumer Electronics Show so I’ve been inundated for some time with press releases touting the next generation of gadgets.

As it happens, I’m in the middle of an upgrade cycle for my home electronics, so over the last few weeks I set out to get as many of the devices in our apartment talking to each other as possible. I figured my family would be a good test case because I’m on a MacBook and Blackberry, my wife is on iPad and iPhone, and my daughter is on a Windows 7 laptop and Android phone. In our living room we have a new-ish Pioneer A/V receiver plus a Sony Blu-ray player and Samsung Smart TV for streaming, while in our master bedroom we have a Sony Blu-ray Player and Apple TV connected to a ten-year-old Pioneer receiver (lacking HDMI). Our TV service is AT&T U-verse.

My conclusion so far: These connection technologies are cool when they work, but they don’t work as well as they should, and until they get easier to use and more reliable, they’re going to remain niche services for gearheads.

I found that there are three broad categories of stuff to be aware of: Apple, DLNA and HDMI.

DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance), simply put, is supposed to let PCs and other devices send music, video and photos to networked receivers, TVs and other devices. Think of it as everyone else’s answer to Apple’s Airplay.

It took me two Google searches and 15 minutes to get my daughter’s Windows 7 laptop streaming music to our living room Smart TV and audio system. That doesn’t sound like much, but I write on technology and knew what to search for; it was harder than it should have been. But once it was done, my daughter was literally jumping for joy. It was easier to get my Blackberry streaming to the TV.

Getting my MacBook Pro to stream to the same system was more work. I tried several DLNA server apps, some of which didn’t work, but I finally got streaming working, more or less, with TVMobili. However it only lets me stream music I ripped from CDs, not music downloaded from the iTunes store. (One reason I still like disks.) The Samsung TV we stream too also insists on putting an announcement dialog box on screen everytime it recognizes a new device, forcing us to grab the TV remote and hit an “OK” button. Annoying. The DLNA interface is adequate when it works but it’s not much fun to use.

HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) If you have to hook up your own TVs, amplifiers, set top boxes and game controllers, as I do, HDMI is an absolute boon. A single HDMI cable replaces an array of video and audio cables and sends pristine digital data from one device to the next. On my system, though, there are limits. If I stream through my TV and use HDMI to send audio to my receiver, I can only get stereo, so I’m still forced to use an optical cable to send sound to my receiver.

HDMI also has Consumer Electronics Control (CEC), which is also supposed to let devices control one another, so you don’t need three remotes (TV, receiver, disk player) to watch a movie. Unfortunately each device maker implements it a little differently so it’s not reliable. Samsung’s version of CEC, Anynet+, has a frustrating habit of switching the TV source to a dead channel whenever the Blu-ray player turned off, so I finally turned it off. But I got CEC running on the Blu-ray player and receiver, so when I turn on the receiver, the receiver switches automatically. Nice.

Both DLNA and HDMI feel like they’re designed by committee and no one’s in charge of either making them look good or making sure everything works together. Apple: Apple’s gear mostly lives up to Steve Jobs’s admonition that things should “just work.” I had to spend some time tinkering with my home WiFi network, which uses both U-verse’s gateway and Apple Airport base stations. It’s cranky and will be so until I buy newer Airport gear. But the Apple TV has a simple, gorgeous interface and it’s fun to use. It’s so good, in fact, we will probably put another one in the living room, and Airplay is what DLNA wants to be. I talked my wife into putting the U-verse app on her iPad, and after tinkering more with the network and the U-verse receiver boxes, we think she can now watch On Demand programs on her iPad. But we’re not sure.

I’m a former stage electrician and sound tech, and I write on tech for a living. I found hooking all this stuff up bothersome. For the average consumer, it’s all way too hard. Only Apple is delivering on the promise of easy, fun connectivity today, but that means living within their ecosystem, which is quite rigid.

I’ll be gaping at the Ultra-High-Definition and OLED TVs next week like everyone else. But the latest and greatest gadgets depend on underlying tech like DLNA and HDMI, and they need as much help as they can get.

Bits & Bytes

Look Effects has hired Everett Burrell as visual effects supervisor. Burrell’s vfx credits include “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Battle: Los Angeles” and “A Good Day to Die Hard.”

Sister companies Company 3 and eFilm provided digital intermediate color grading on the following holiday releases: “Hyde Park on Hudson” (Adam Glasman, Company 3 UK); “Les Miserables (Adam Glasman, Company 3 UK); “Zero Dark Thirty” (Stephen Nakamura, Company 3)’ “This is 40” (Stefan Sonnenfeld, Company 3); “The Guilt Trip” (Natasha Leonnet, eFilm); “Jack Reacher” (Yvan Lucas, eFilm); “Django Unchained” (Yvan Lucas, eFilm).

32Ten Studios, the former ILM and Kerner Optical space in San Rafael, now houses three new tentants: freelance art director Lou Romano; Sylvan Video founder George Rosenfeld; and Merrick Cheney, owner of puppet design studio Mechinations. Mechinations offers custom machining and CAD/CAM services.

Fu Works of the Netherlands has released its latest film, “The Bombardment,” in Barco’s Auro 11.1 sound format.

Autodesk is shipping Smoke 2013 … e-on software has released version 2 of the Carbon Scatter plugin for 3ds, Maya and Cinema 4D. … Cineversity has released ArtSmart, a new plugin for Maxon’s Cinema 4D that allows users to add artwork from Adobe Illustrator or PDF files.