Network Media Devices Archive

The successor to the Freebox Révolution has arrived in France

Articles Freebox Delta press photo courtesy of Iliad (Free.fr)

Xavier Niel unveils new Freebox with Alexa, Devialet, Sigfox, Netflix | TechCrunch

French Language / Langue française

Free annonce ses nouvelles Freebox : la Freebox Delta et la Freebox One | FreeNews

Freebox One : pour les accros à Netflix (et c’est tout) | ZDNet.fr

Freebox Delta : voici la box qui doit sauver Free | ZDNet.fr

From the horse’s mouth

Free.fr (French Language / Langue française)

Freebox Delta (Press Release / Communiqué de presse – PDF)

Freebox One (Press Release / Communiqué de presse – PDF)

My Comments

While the “gilets jaunes” were protesting about the cost of living in France, Free.fr had just launched a long-awaited successor to the Freebox Révolution modem-router and media player setup.

The Freebox Révolution was a device symbolic of the highly-competitive telecommunications and Internet-service market that exists in France. It is a xDSL modem-router with an Ethernet connection and a NAS that is also a DLNA-compliant media server. It works with a set-top media player that has an integrated PVR and Blu-Ray player. But over the years, these units took on new functionality that was extraordinary for carrier-provided equipment such as VPN endpoint and Apple AirPlay functionality. Infact I saw it as a benchmark for devices supplied by telcos and ISPs for Internet access when it came to functionality.

Here, there are two systems – one called the Freebox Delta which is positioned at the premium end of the market, and the other called the Freebox One which is positioned as an entry-level offering.

The Freebox Delta has a server unit which combines a modem-router and a NAS that is equivalent to a baseline 4-bay standalone NAS. The WAN (Internet) side can work with a 10Gb fibre connection, an xDSL connection or a 4G mobile broadband connection. But it is the first modem-router that can aggregate the bandwidth of an xDSL connection and a 4G mobile broadband connection for increased throughput.

On the LAN side, there is a Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) connection working across three bands and implementing MU-MIMO wireless connectivity. It is in conjunction with an integral four-port Gigabit Ethernet switch. There is the ability to link to the Freebox Delta Player in another room using the FreePlugs which are Gigabit HomePlug AV2 adaptors that Free.fr provides but these are actually network adaptors that use the USB-C peripheral connection approach.

The VoIP functionality that any “box” service offered by the French carriers provides has an RJ11 endpoint for a telephone as well as a DECT base station. There is a USB-C connection along with NFC support.

But Free.fr are even having the Freebox Delta as part of a home-automation system by providing hardware and software support for home-automation hub functionality. It is thanks to Free’s partnership with the Sigfox smart-home software platform. This is based around Zigbee technology with Free.fr and others supplying “smart-home” devices complying with this technology.

The Freebox Delta Player is effectively a connected speaker made by Devialet, a French hi-fi name of respect when it comes to speaker.  But it is a soundbar that uses 6 drivers to yield effectively a 5.1 surround-sound experience.

It works with a French-based voice-driven home assistant (OK Freebox) that handles basic commands but can work with Amazon Alexa which gives it access to the Amazon Alexa Skills library. This is achieved through a four-microphone array and is another way for a European company to effectively answer Silicon Valley in the field of voice-driven assistant platforms.

It can yield pictures to the 4K HDR 10 standard using an HDMI 2.1 socket compliant with the HDCP 2.2 standard and supporting eARC audio transfer that allows for best use with 4K UHD TVs. There is also a DVB-T2 tuner for over-the-air digital TV. You can control the Freebox Delta Player using a wirelessly-charged touchscreen remote which charges on a Qi-compliant wireless charging plate integrated in this media player. Let’s not forget that this device is up-to-date by implementing USB-C peripheral connectivity for two peripherals.

The Freebox Delta will cost EUR€480 to buy, with payment options of  EUR€120 per month over 4 months, EUR€10 per month over 48 months or the full upfront price being paid. The service will cost at least EUR€49.99 per month.

Freebox One press picture courtesy of Iliad (Free.fr)

Freebox One – the entry-level solution

The Freebox One is an entry level single-piece multimedia player and modem-router unit. This will have a Gigabit Fibre and xDSL connectivity on the WAN (Internet) side and Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) and four Gigabit Ethernet ports on the LAN side. There will be the DECT VoIP base for the telephony function along with a DVB-T connection for digital TV. It can work with 4K HDR 10 via an HDMI 2.1 (HDCP 2.2 compliant) port for your 4K UHDTV.

It has a front-panel display that is similar to the previous generation of Freebox systems.  You can get this device for EUR€29.99 per month for first year, EUR€39.99 per month as a Freebox hardware-and-services package of the kind you get in France.

With both Freebox systems, I would expect that Free.fr will regularly release new firmware that will add extra functionality to these devices over the years. When you get these “boxes”, you will find that there is more of an incentive to visit the “mis à jour” part of the user interface and frequently update their software.

By offering the Freebox Delta for sale rather tied with a multiple-play service package, Free.fr wants to be able to sell this unit as a device you can use with other services. This means that they can put themselves on the same footing as AVM by being another Continental-European source of highly-capable always-updated consumer premises equipment for your home network.

But what needs to happen is for the European consumer IT firms to create hardware and software platforms that can effectively answer what Silicon Valley has to offer. Who knows which European companies will end up as the “Airbus” or “Arianespace” of consumer and small-business IT?

Send to Kindle

SAT-IP technology to extend to terrestrial and cable TV setups

Article – From the horse’s mouth

Broadcast-LAN setup

This could become the way to distribute cable and terrestrial TV around the home in Europe

AVM

SAT>IP — what is it? (Blog Post relating to DVB-C broadcast-LAN abilities in some AVM FritzBox cable modem routers)

My Comments

In Europe, SAT-IP, properly spelt SAT>IP, has been established as a broadcast-LAN standard for satellite-TV setups. This implements a satellite broadcast-LAN tuner that connects between the satellite dish and your home network, whereupon a a compatible TV or set-top box or a computing device running compatible software “tunes in” and picks up the satellite broadcast.

Lenovo Yoga Tab Android tablet

A mobile-platform tablet running a SAT-IP client could end up serving as a portable TV for a cable or terrestrial TV setup

At the moment, Panasonic smart TVs pitched to the European market can work with a SAT-IP setup, with Loewe rolling this feature in to their models, but there is a wide range of software including VLC that can work with this setup along with a significant number of set-top boxes.

But this technology is being taken further by extending it to terrestrial and cable TV setups, especially in Germany which has a infrastructure-agnostic policy regarding the distribution of free-to-air and pay TV. That is you could watch Tatort on Das Erste in that country no matter whether you are using the traditional TV antenna, a cable-TV infrastructure or a satellite dish. Some online resources in that country even use the name TV-IP or TV>IP to describe this all-encompassing approach.

Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 Intel 8th Generation CPU at QT Melbourne hotel - presentation mode

.. as could one of these Windows-based 2-in-1 convertibles

There is still the issue with rented properties and most multi-family developments where there is only one point of entry for the cable-TV service and it becomes more of a hassle to add extra cable-TV outlets around the premises for extra sets. There is also the fact that most of us are using laptops, tablets and smartphones in lieu of the portable TV for doing things like watching “guilty-pleasure” TV around the home.

AVM are releasing Fritz!OS 7 firmware for their Fritz!Box 6490 Cable and Fritz!Box 6590 Cable modem routers that provides a SAT-IP server functionality to extend these devices’ broadcast-LAN abilities, initially facilitated using DLNA. They also are rolling this function to the Fritz!WLAN Repeater DVB-C which is another broadcast-LAN device for cable TV in addition to a Wi-FI repeater.

Once updated, these Fritz!Box cable modem routers and the Fritz!WLAN Repeater DVB-C will present the DVB-C cable-TV and radio signals to any SAT-IP client device or software as if you are using a SAT-IP satellite broadcast-LAN device. I also see this working with those SMATV (shared satellite dish) setups for larger building that repackage satellite TV and terrestrial TV channels as DVB-C-compatible cable-TV channels.

I wouldn’t put it past other broadcast-LAN vendors courting the European market to have their non-satellite devices become SAT-IP servers. But also what needs to happen is that more TV manufacturers to implement SAT-IP-based technologies “out of the box” across their product ranges.

It could appeal to a hassle-free approach to TV-location approach where you have a single entry point for your TV aerial, cable-TV service or satellite dish but you use your home network, be it Wi-Fi 5/6 (802.11ac/ax), HomePlug AV2 or Ethernet, and a SAT-IP compatible broadcast-LAN box to permit you to relocate your TV or add more sets as you please. This is without having to call in a TV-aerial technician to install extra sockets or get the landlord to assent to their installation.

Another factor that would drive SAT-IP or TV-IP further would be to build support for it in to games consoles and similar devices that are expected to be single-box multimedia terminals. Think of devices like the XBox One, PS4, Apple TV and the like, or regular computers running their native operating systems.

But it may be seen as a big ask unless this technology is implemented beyond continental Europe. This is due to the common tech attitude that if a technology isn’t implemented beyond a particular geographic area or isn’t implemented in the USA, it will miss the boat for native operating-system support.

Send to Kindle

Google and Amazon on the network multiroom audio game

Articles

Amazon Echo on kitchen bench press photo courtesy of Amazon USA

Amazon intends to make the Echo smart speaker and Alexa voice-driven home assistant part of a full-blown network multiroom audio system

How to set up multi-room audio with Google Assistant & Chromecast speakers | The Ambient

How to set up multiroom music playback with Amazon Echo | The Verge

Amazon Echo speakers adding stereo pairing, better multiroom audio support | CNet

Amazon Leapfrogs Google And Apple In Home Automation | Lifehacker

From the horse’s mouth

Google

Multi-room group playback with Google Home (Support Resource)

Amazon

Play Music on Multiple Echo Devices (Support Resource)

Amazon Announces New Echo Devices—Add Alexa to Every Room and Your Car (Press Release)

My Comments

Google Home and the Chromecast platform is already running a basic network multiroom audio setup

Google recently enabled their Assistant and Chromecast platforms to support network-based multiroom audio through compliant audio devices.  This has the facility to stream selected online audio sources to the audio devices that work these platforms and permits the use of logical groups as well as party-mode playback of the same source across the multiple devices in that group.

Amazon initially let out an Alexa application-programming interface to permit multiroom audio play across multiple Echo or Alexa-compatible devices. This initially supported logical groups and party-mode playback of the same source across devices in a logical group. But they one-upped Google by adding extra functionality to their Alexa API for multiroom audio including the ability to set up a stereo speaker pair or allow a speaker to be a member of two groups. It is in conjunction with a newer Echo Show device answering the Lenovo Smart Display that is based on Google’s Home Platform.

As well, Amazon had just unveilled new hardware under their brand to take advantage of these new capabilities. One of thse is the Echo Sub subwoofer that can be set up to work alongside a single Echo speaker or a pair of Echo speakers set up to work as a stereo pair for wider stereo separation. It is about adding that bit of extra bass kick to the sound that comes out of those speakers. Then the Echo Dot and Echo Plus speakers have been revised while an Echo Input device was unveilled to put all its audio output via a a connected speaker or sound system.

To connect your favourite hi-fi system to the Amazon Alexa infrastructure, Amazon offered the Echo Link devices which just exist to stream audio content. Both of these connect to the equipment via an analogue RCA line-level connection or an SPDIF digital connection which can be coaxial or optical. They also have both a digital and analogue input connection, perhaps to pass audio devices through the connected sound system, but I am not sure if these devices can stream an audio source in to the Amazon Echo setup that you have established. The Link Amp variant has an integral power amplifier in order to play the music content through your existing passive speakers.

A question that may surface as Amazon rolls the enhanced network multiroom audio functionality across the Alexa platform is whether third-party devices could benefit from these new functions. As well, could Google answer Amazon by offering the extra feature and more for their Home platform especially if they run a range of smart speaker products under their own label? It could simply be the sign of things to come as both Amazon and Google duke it out for the voice-driven home assistant market.

Send to Kindle

What are the full-featured desktop NAS units about?

Article

Synology DiskStation DS415play NAS with media transcoding - Press image courtesy of Synology

Synology DiskStation DS415play – an example of these full-function network-attached-storage units

Synology DSM vs. QNAP QTS: Which NAS is right for you? | Windows Central

My Comments

Increasingly Synology and QNAP have become strong rivals when it comes to full-function network-attached-storage devices that do more than what WD, Seagate and others offer. Here, they are made by two NAS specialists who are running high-end NAS-focused operating systems that can be run headless or with a screen and keyboard “head”. Some manufacturers like NETGEAR and ASUSStor are following on with Synology’s and QNAP’s efforts to join in the pack when it comes to

QNAP TS-251 2-bay NAS

QNAP TS-251 2-bay NAS – another example of what a full-function NAS is about

offering full-function NAS units for home and small-business use.

Recent iterations of these devices typically have the same kind of computing power as a relatively-recent low-end regular personal computer but put this power towards file handling and serving. Most of them will support at least a two-disk RAID setup in the low-tier varieties with the mainstream models having four or five disk bays for a RAID 5 setup. The “brain” in these devices will be mostly an ARM-based CPU but higher-spec variants may use an Intel or AMD processor expected in a very low-end laptop computer. You may also find some NAS units like the Synology “play” NAS units running a graphics processor as a co-processor for media transcoding. A significant number of models will even support upgradeable RAM to allow them to work more quickly and handle more data traffic.

But the operating system is of a similar standard to one that would drive a regular personal computer. Most likely it would be a variant of a desktop Linux distribution and would be regularly updated as well as allowing users to install apps from the NAS vendor’s app store. Once you log in through a Web-based user interface or a keyboard / screen / mouse “console” attached to the NAS, you would experience a user interface similar to Windows, MacOS or desktop Linux running a graphical user interface.  But most of these user interfaces can’t allow for cut-and-paste between the host computer and the NAS user interface.

The apps will typically convey particular file-handling functions like syncing to online storage platforms, BitTorrent server functionality and DLNA-compliant media-server functionality. There is also apps that “tie” the NAS to native mobile-platform client apps supplied by the vendor to allow transfer of data between the NAS and a mobile-platform tablet or smartphone. It is typically a way to push a NAS as a “personal cloud” by working with a vendor-hosted “DNS-mapping” arrangement to allow you to upload content from your iPhone to your NAS even while you are out and about and connected to the Internet. This is in addition to various “client-backup” server tools for regular-computer platforms along with NAS-NAS backup tools.

Let’s not forget software like media-player functionality or IP-camera videosurveillance recording functionality. In some cases, there are various server apps for email or WordPress content management so you could easily purpose these units as a business information server. In some cases, adding peripherals to these NAS devices opens up paths for extra functionality with, for example, TV-tuner modules converting these NAS units in to Tivo-style PVRs that can share live or recorded TV content over the network.

QNAP’s QTS and Synology are very similar in many ways but Synology is focused towards simplified operation while QTS is focused towards taking advantage of faster better hardware. There are other similar full-featured NAS platforms like Netgear’s ReadyNAS or the ASUSStor NAS platform existing but there doesn’t seem to be the same kind of third-party developer base built up around these platforms.

But what can be done to make the full-featured NAS market better? One approach could be to allow the licensing of one or more of these NAS operating systems and app platforms to other companies on a “white-label” basis so they can launch their own full-featured NAS product range. This can avoid the need for a company who wants to develop their own NAS product to “reinvent the wheel” when building software.  As well, the creation of one or more large platform bases for NAS operating systems can give software developers the confidence to create software for these devices. Therefore it can avoid the home and small-business NAS market becoming like the games-console market which is focused towards vendor-specific solutions with a limited path for delivering additional software.

Personally, I would recommend the full-function NAS units of the Synology or QNAP ilk as being suitable for those of us who want more out of a network-storage device. In some cases, I would see it as appealing for an upgrade path for people who see their NAS device do more than just host files from your computer and share them to your Smart TV. Similarly it would appeal to those of us who want the basic abilities like DLNA media serving to be done in a more capable manner.

Send to Kindle

What to be aware of with multiroom-capable network media players with integrated content sources

Marantz ND-8006 network CD player press picture courtesy of Qualifi Pty. Ltd

Marantz ND8006 multiroom network CD player – an example of one of these multiroom network media players with an integrated programme source

A few hi-fi equipment manufacturers who have an investment in a network-based multiroom audio platform are offering or intending to offer network-media-adaptor components with integrated traditional content sources.

The first example of this kind of unit is the Marantz ND-8006 network CD player which works with the HEOS multiroom platform at least as a multiroom audio player. Then Yamaha just premiered the MusicCast Vinyl 500 which combines a turntable for playing those vinyl records and a network media player in the one chassis, something that is intended to appeal to the hipster vibe or the 40-60-year-old who fondly remembers playing or listening to those old records from their youth. Here, this unit can play the sound from a record on its platter or an online source through an amplifier via its line-level outputs. Or it can be set up to stream the sound from that same record or an online source to a network-based multiroom system based on that manufacturer’s MusicCast platform. Let’s not forget that there are some DAB+ digital-radio / Internet-radio tuners out there that are or will be part of a network-based multiroom audio platform of some sort, most likely the UNDOK platform offered by Frontier Silicon like the Sangean WFT-3 Internet radio tuner. The same situation can also apply to those multiroom network media players that have a USB port so you can play what’s on a USB memory key or flash drive through your multiroom setup.

Eventually, more of these manufacturers will offer at least one of these devices in their product ranges, whether they have an integrated CD player, turntable or broadcast-radio tuner.

What you can do

In these cases, you will hear the online sources and the device’s integrated programme source through the same input that it is connected to on the sound system. Some of these system may allow you to stream content from another sound system that is part of your multiroom setup, including a source connected to the AUX inputs of one of the multiroom speakers in your setup.

Some of these devices will also allow you to stream the device’s integrated programme source through the multiroom system, which can be a single-box solution for bringing legacy packaged media or broadcast radio to the speakers in your multiroom setup. Depending on the device, there may be the ability to stream a source connected to an external-device input that the device is equipped with to the multiroom system. It may also apply to devices that have a Bluetooth A2DP link for use with smartphones.

Streaming sources connected to the amplifier that the multiroom device is connected to

You may find yourself exposed to a limitation caused by the other sources connected to or integrated in the sound system that this device is connected to not being available to the multiroom setup. This is more so where, for example, you have connected it to a stereo receiver or an amplifier that has a turntable connected to its PHONO input.

There may be an exception to the rule for this situation if your network media player has a line-level input for external devices and your sound system has a line-level output that is typically used for connecting a recording device. Here, you could connect the network device’s line-input to your sound system’s line-output or tape-output, perhaps wiring the device to the sound system as if you are connecting a recording device.

You may run in to problems if your amplifier’s tape loop is occupied by a recording device, perhaps a cassette deck. This is where you may not be able to make use of the amplifier’s tape output to stream what is being played in your cassette deck unless you keep switching wires around. Rather, you may end up using a switch box for this purpose to create a virtual “tape monitor” switch for your network media adaptor’s line input.

If you are using a PA or sound-reinforcement setup with a mixing desk, you cannot use the same network media device to play an online source or source integrated in that device and share the system’s output to a multiroom speaker setup. Such an arrangement can lead to acoustic feedback which results in a howling sound through the system if the line-level input is selected on the network media device while it’s connected to any of the mixer’s outputs. Rather, it would be better to use a separate network media adaptor which has a line input for the purpose of creating an audio on-ramp to your network multiroom setup.

Conclusion

Once you know what these multiroom-capable network media players that have integrated legacy content sources are capable of, you can then make sure they are able to work as part of your sound system and your multiroom speaker setup.

Send to Kindle

Sonos launches the first soundbar that works with multiple voice-driven home assistants

Articles

Sonos Beam soundbar connected to TV - press picture courtesy of Sonos

Sonos Beam under the TV

Sonos says its new Beam speaker will be able to talk to Siri, Alexa, and Assistant | FastCompany

A closer look at Sonos Beam: Smaller, smarter and more connected | Engadget

Sonos introduce cheaper, smarter Sonos Beam soundbar | PC World

From the horse’s mouth

Sonos

Sonos Beam (product page – direct purchase opportunity, press release)

My Comments

Sonos Beam soundbar (black finish) press picture courtesy of Sonos

Sonos Beam soundbar

Sonos has offered a smart speaker that not just is part of their own multi-room ecosystem but can work with multiple different voice assistants. Now they have taken this concept further by offering the Sonos Beam compact sound bar which can do this same trick.

They have taken this approach due to a reality with people operating two or more different voice-driven assistants. The classic reality would be someone who has an Amazon Echo at home but uses Siri in their iPhone or Google Assistant in their Android smartphone. But these assistants don’t complement each other effectively or even work with each other at all.

But this has been taken further with the Sonos Beam soundbar which is seen as a competitor to JBL’s Link Bar soundbar that has integrated Android TV set-top box functionality and can work with the Google Assistant. Initially it will come with Amazon Alexa but Siri and Google Assistant will be delivered as firmware updates through the year. A firmware upgrade will fully enable the Sonos Beam for Apple’s AirPlay 2 ecosystem which is Apple’s take on a full-blown multiroom setup centred around their products.

Sonos multiroom system press picture courtesy of Sonos

Works equally well with the rest of the Sonos multiroom system

For the sound, the Sonos Beam soundbar uses a digital-enhancement approach to draw out the bass from its compact cabinet. But you could team it with Sonos’s “Sub” subwoofer if you find that this may offer a better job at providing that extra bass. As well, thanks to the Sonos setup, you could team two of their standard speakers if you want to set up the full surround-sound experience.

The Sonos Beam “hears” you through an integrated far-field microphone array. But you can control whether it hears you or not by pressing a microphone-mute button on the speaker – this will have a “mic” icon located on it. The ability to control the microphone on this device reduces the risk of nuisance triggering which can easily happen when TV content is being played. Thanks to the HDMI-CEC standard facilitated by the HDMI-ARC connection, there is the ability to voice-control your TV in relation to sound volume (including muting the advertisements) or power status.

A limitation most of us will find with this soundbar is that it only has one HDMI connection for HDMI-ARC connectivity to the TV for its sound. This can be very constraining for those of us who use a TV that has very few HDMI connections and you use all these connections for various video peripherals.

But it is another effort by Sonos to prove that a smart-speaker device could support multiple voice-driven assistant platforms on the same device. Could this also be a reality with other equipment manufacturers soon? On the other hand, could this device become a virtual friend for that lonely person by providing better sound for daytime TV or being someone to talk to?

Send to Kindle

JBL premieres a soundbar with a built-in Android TV set-top box

Articles

Google partners with JBL for an Android TV-powered soundbar | The Verge

JBL’s next soundbar doubles as an Android TV box | Engadget

From the horse’s mouth

Harman (JBL)

Smart TV Content Meets Amazing Sound: JBL and Google Developing LINK BAR (Press Release)

Video – Click or tap to play

My Comments

One set-top-box manufacturer approached the subscription-TV and ISP market with the idea of integrating a set-top box and a soundbar in to the one physical unit.

It is to capitalise on the fact that most of us would prefer to use a soundbar rather than the multiple-speaker home-theatre setup. This is perhaps about budget issues or TV-positioning arrangements like the traditional “TV in the corner” arrangement to avoid competing with the view offered by a picture window or fireplace. As well, we may be more interested in maintaining a stereo system dedicated to music playback.

Now JBL has answered this product class through premiering at Google I/O 2018 the Link Bar soundbar which has a built-in Android TV set-top box. This unit has the full Android TV experience including the ability to download Android-TV-based native apps through the Google Play Store. It also has a microphone built in to it so you can speak to the Google Assistant to call up video content. As per requirements for the Android TV platform, you have to press a button to make the microphone come alive so you can speak to the Google Assistant

Android TV has appeared in some smart-TV devices, especially the NVIDIA Shield games console and a significant number of Sony smart TVs. But for JBL to issue this platform in a soundbar is very impressive and is an attempt to push out this product class. It is also an attempt to get Android beyond the smartphones and the tablets.

There is the ability to connect the Link Bar soundbar to your TV and video peripherals via HDMI with it honouring HDMI-CEC and HDMI-ARC expectations. This is taken further by you being able to switch sources or control the TV with your voice. As well, the Google Assistant is available independent of whether the TV is on or off and can work tightly with your Google Home smart-home setup.

JBL intends to have the Link Bar ready for release in to the US market at least by between September – November 2018.  Here, I would see this soundbar work well alongside most flat-screen TVs and have them become a Smart TV. But what needs to happen is that Google needs to keep the Android TV operating system up-to-date to make sure it works properly and securely all the time.

Send to Kindle

DVB to introduce a simplified Internet-driven TV standard

Article

LG OLED TVs pres picture courtesy of LG

DVB-I could continue to push the traditional TV interface to Internet TV

DVB wants to enable streaming channels without app complexity | VideoNet

From the horse’s mouth

DVB

Press Release

My Comments

It is often said that today’s cool young viewers have done away with watching TV the traditional way where you select a channel and view a sequence of shows run on that channel.

Rather they are seen to prefer to watch on-demand content offered by one of many different on-demand services including “catch-up” TV services, making more of an effort to choose the kind of shows that interest them. It is underscored by the practice of “binge-watching” a TV series where one watches multiple episodes of that TV series along with Netflix and co implementing recommendations engines to list shows that one may be interested in.

TV remote control

It will maintain the traditional remote-control experience like channel surfing

But this traditional approach to  TV content consumption is still practised by most viewers, especially those of older generations.

Some viewers still like the idea of “channel surfing” where one flicks through the channels to discover something that could be of interest to them. In some areas like some of Australia’s capital cities, it was facilitated with some channels that were neighbouring each other on the dial. This habit has been made easier since television sets were equipped with remote controls or could be connected to devices like video recorders or cable boxes that provided remote-control channel change.

As well, it is seen by some of these viewers, including children, to be relaxing to watch a run of TV shows offered by one of the channels. Examples include an afternoon after school where children watch cartoons or similar TV shows, or the practice of having a TV news channel play while one engages in ordinary daily activities.

Let’s not forget that news and sports content totally lend themselves to this kind of viewing. In some cases, there may be two concurrent sporting fixtures of interest, such as the Boxing Day ritual in Australia where households flick between the Seven Network for the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race and the Nine Network for the Boxing Day Test cricket match. Or one could flick through channels running different coverage of the same news event to compare how they cover it or look for further detail about that event.

Let’s not forget that the on-demand TV experience can be “linearised” for a viewer through being led on to recommended content or subsequent episodes of a series.

What is DVB doing to bridge the linear TV experience with the Internet?

The DVB Consortium who define the digital-TV standards that Europe, most of Asia and Oceania work with are working towards defining the DVB-I standard. I would suspect that most of this effort has been driven by Germany’s approach to free-to-air and pay TV where the idea of delivering TV service is to be media-agnostic and most, if not all, TV stations in the German-speaking countries are delivered by the traditional TV aerial, a cable-TV infrastructure or satellite TV.

The DVB-I standard is an IP-based TV broadcasting standard that supports the provision of linear-streaming TV services through the open Internet. Here it is intended to provide an app-free experience in a similar manner to TV services received via the traditional TV aerial, cable TV infrastructure or satellite dish. This means that a TV or set-top box can be connected to a home network and Internet service then the customer can be asked to add Internet-hosted streaming services to the programme lineup with the set discovering these services from a directory like what has happened with Internet radio.

There has been an earlier attempt at this goal in the USA with RVU technology that is part of the DLNA VidiPath specification, but it has been used primarily as an attempt to deliver cable-TV to secondary TV sets without the need for extra set-top boxes. This was also as part of an Obama-era effort to require cable-TV providers to deliver their pay-TV services to households without the need for each household to rent a set-top box from that provider.

Lenovo Yoga Tablet 2 tablet

One app will be all that is needed to deliver TV to a smartphone, tablet or laptop

The goal will also be about providing a similar experience for Internet-streamed linear TV content as what we have traditionally experienced with broadcast TV, whether free-to-air or subscription (pay) service. This includes the ability to support logical channel numbers that allow for direct access to particular channels, the ability to quickly change channels no matter the source thus continuing the “channel-surfing” tradition.

But on the other hand, some service providers such as cable-TV providers will want to convey their branding and user interface to the end-user. This may also be seen as being important with broadcast-LAN device manufacturer, building owners / strata committees who run MATV setups, or hoteliers who want to persist their identity to the end-user. It can also apply to end-users who are using budget-level equipment where not much thought has been put in to the user interface. HBBTV has answered this need through the use of an “OpApp” or “Operator App” standard to permit the ability to deliver that operator-level interface, which would appeal to TV-service platforms of the Freeview kind.

For broadcasters, DVB-I would do away with the need to create and maintain client software that viewers would need for access to their content. This also does away with various platform issues that creep up with maintaining these apps including catering to each new smart-TV, computer or video-peripheral platform. It also means that people who own older Smart TVs or video peripherals based on platforms that have been abandoned or neglected by the set’s manufacturer aren’t at a disadvantage.

Some of the key benefits that could come about include:

A transport-medium independent operation approach for receiving linear TV broadcasts. This means that TV manufacturers and broadcasters can work towards a simplified “single line-up” for traditional TV broadcast services no matter whether they are carried over the Web or via satellite, cable or terrestrial RF means.

The ability to support broadcast-LAN infrastructure including cable-TV and master-antenna-TV (single antenna or satellite dish serving many TVs like in an apartment block) setups driven totally by IP (Internet Protocol) technology. This approach will be relevant with infrastructure-level broadband providers wanting to use their infrastructure to deliver free-to-air and/or pay-TV services, something being approached by Chorus in New Zealand.

Ability for niche TV services with traditional-style TV experience to exist via Internet due to no need to obtain broadcast-spectrum licences, set up transmitter equipment or get on board cable-TV infrastructure. In a lot of ways, this could reignite the possibility of community TV services coming back on board and not living in fear of losing their access to broadcast spectrum.

With the use of HBBTV (Hybrid Broadcast-Broadband TV), this standard could lead towards a rich linear + on-demand TV setup through traditional TV sets and set-top boxes without the need for special client software. Similarly, it could lead to the creation of gateway software for regular or mobile computer devices to provide access to commonly-available video content services through these devices, knowing that this software can work with newer IP-based broadcasters.

The DVB-I approach could then open up the pathway for a universal TV service that makes use of Internet-based infrastructure like next-generation broadband infrastructure without the need for it to be app-centric.

Send to Kindle

How do I see the state of play with network-based multiroom audio?

Definitive Technologies W-Series multiroom soundbar – an example of one of these network multiroom speakers

Increasingly everyone in the consumer audio-visual industry are releasing multiroom audio platforms that work across a small network to share audio content through your house.

This typically is used as a way for these vendors to “bind” most of their network-capable audio-video products having them serve as an endpoint for music around the house. For some manufacturers, this functionality is seen as a way to differentiate their consumer-electronics product ranges.

Key functions offered by most network-based multiroom audio platforms

Each unit in a network-based multiroom audio platform can be one of many AV device classes. These cam be: a speaker system that plays out the audio content; an adaptor device that plays the audio content through another sound system that has its own amplification and speakers; or a network-capable amplifier that connects to a set of speakers.

The adaptor devices are often promoted as a way to bring an existing hi-fi in to the context of a multiroom audio setup, but you could use computer speakers or a 1980s-era boombox for the same effect. Similarly, network-capable amplifiers may be seen as a way to get existing speakers as part of a multiroom audio setup.

There are different variations on the theme with soundbars that are connected to a TV, or receivers and stereo systems that are capable of acting in their own right as a sound system but can be part of these multiroom setups, or subwoofers that connect to the home network but exist to add some “kick” to the sound played by other speakers in the setup.

These work on the premise of the speakers existing on the same logical network of a “home / small-business” network setup. That is where

  • the network is connected to one router that typically gives it access to Internet service,
  • Wi-Fi wireless segments are set up according to the WPA-Personal (shared passphrase) arrangement
  • members of a network are not isolated and can easily discover each other
  • and you are not using a Web-based login page to use the network.

This Def Tech device is an “on-ramp” digital media adaptor for a network-based multiroom audio setup

The speakers can be set up as members of a logical group that typically represents a room, with the ability to have multiple logical speaker groups on the same logical network. Under normal operation, all speakers of that group play the same audio stream synchronously. As well, the hardware and software works together to avoid jitter and other problems associated with moving synchronous time-dependent audio content across packet-based networks.

Some platforms allow the creation of a multichannel group where a speaker or speakers play a channel of a stereo or multichannel soundmix. Here, you could have one speaker play the left channel of a stereo soundmix while another speaker plays the right channel of that stereo mix. This has led to the creation of surround-sound setups with a soundbar or surround-capable stereo receiver playing the front channels of a surround soundmix while wireless speakers look after the surround channels and low-frequency effects of that mix.

Let’s not forget that some systems have the ability to use certain speakers to handle particular frequency ranges of the audio stream. The obvious case is to bring in a wireless subwoofer to provide that bit of extra bass punch to the music. But it could be to use full-range speaker systems with improved bass response to complement speakers that don’t have that kind of bass response. In this case, the full-range speaker may be allow frequency-level adjustability and you could set things up so that it puts more of its power behind the bass while the other speakers provide stronger localised treble response.

Yamaha R-N402 Natural Sound Network Stereo Receiver press picture courtesy of Yamaha Australia

Yamaha R-N402 Network Stereo Receiver – a MusicCast-based example of a stereo component that cam stream its own sources to a network multiroom system or play content from an online or multiroom source

You can adjust the sound levels for each output device individually or adjust them all as a group, The individual approach can appeal to “party-mode” arrangements where different speakers are in different rooms and is of benefit where you can adjust the sound level on the device itself; but the group approach comes in handy with multiple speakers in one room such as a multichannel setup.

All of these setups use a mobile-platform app supplied by the platform vendor as the control surface. But some of them allow some form of elementary control like programme selection or sound-level adjustment through controls on the device or its remote control. Let’s not forget that an increasing number of these platforms are being supported by interfaces for one or more voice-driven home assistants so you can tell Amazon Alexa to adjust the volume or play a particular source through the system.

Most of these platforms allow a device to have integrated programme sources or input connections for external equipment and stream what’s playing through these sources or inputs through one or more other speakers. The applications put forward include to play the TV sound from a connected TV in the living room through a speaker in the kitchen or to have the music on a CD playing on the stereo system’s CD player coming through a speaker in the bedroom.

A party context for this feature could include connecting an audio adaptor with a line-level input to the DJ’s mixer output in parallel with his PA amplifier and speakers serving the dance-floor area. Then you “extend” the party sound that the DJ creates in to the other rooms using other wireless speakers / audio adaptors based on that same platform with each output device working at a level appropriate to the area each speaker or adaptor-equipped sound system is used in. Here, the multiroom audio setup can make it easy to provide “right-sized” amplification for other areas at the venue.

Denon HEOS wireless speakers

The Denon HEOS multiroom speakers – a typical example of network-based multiroom devices

Increasingly, most of these platforms are being geared towards taking advantage of your home network to reproduce master-grade audio content recorded at the different speakers. Initially this was to cater towards file-based audio content sourced from online “download-to-own” music storefronts who cater to audiophiles but is catering towards high-quality streaming-music services. It also is a way to stream audio content from analogue sources such as your vinyl record collection across your home network without losing sound quality in the process.

The current limitations with these systems

The multiroom-audio platforms are created by the audio-equipment manufacturers or, in some cases, the companies who are behind the hardware chipsets used in these devices. Only one platform, namely DTS PlayFi, is created by a company who isn’t developing particular chipsets or equipment.

Here, this leads effectively to balkanisation of the network-based multiroom audio marketplace where you have to be sure all your equipment is part of one platform for it to work correctly. You may be able to work around this problem through connecting one unit from one platform to another unit belonging to another platform using a line-level, digital or Bluetooth connection, then juggling between two different mobile-platform apps to control the system.

What needs to happen?

As this product function evolves, there needs to be room to improve.

Firstly, there needs to be the ability for one to establish a network-based multiroom setup using devices based on different platforms. This would require creating and maintaining industry-wide standards and specifications under an umbrella “multiroom AV platform” that all the manufacturers can implement, in a similar way to HDMI-CEC equipment control via HDMI. The Wi-Fi Alliance have taken steps towards this by developing Wi-Fi TimeSync as a standards-based approach towards achieving audio synchronisation across Wi-Fi-based devices. Qualcomm is wanting to push the AllPlay

It would also be about identifying and creating multichannel audio setups that can work appropriately. In the case of a stereo setup, this would require the speakers to have the same output level and frequency response for a proper stereo pair. A surround setup would work with speakers that are part of a “pair” in the Front, Surround or Back (7.1 setups) having the same output level and frequency response. To the same extent, it could be about adding a subwoofer to speakers that can only handle the middle and higher frequencies.

Manufacturers also have to underscore whether these systems can work across any network segment types present in a home network including handling networks that are comprised of multiple segments. This can cater to wireless networks implementing either an Ethernet or HomePlug wired backbone, or one of the newer distributed-Wi-Fi networks. A few multiroom audio platforms have achieved this goal through the supply of equipment, typically stereo systems and adaptor devices, that uses Ethernet connectivity as well as Wi-Fi connectivity.

There is also the issue of allowing for network-based multiroom audio setups to have a high number of endpoint devices even on a typical home network. Here it is about how much can be handled across the typical network’s bandwidth especially if the network and devices implement up-to-date high-bandwidth technology.

This is important if one considers implementing one or more multichannel groups or use wireless subwoofers in every group for that bit of extra bass. It also is important where someone may want to run two or more logical groups at once with each logical group running the same or a different local or online content source.

Some manufacturers may determine device limits based on the number of logical groups that can be created. But I would still like to do away with placing an artificial ceiling on how large one can have their multiroom audio setup, with the only limit being the effective bandwidth available to the home network.

Conclusion

The network-based multiroom audio technology is showing some signs of maturity but a lot more effort needs to take place to assure a level playing field for consumers who want to implement such setups.

Send to Kindle

What is the new HEIF image file format about?

Apple iPad Pro 9.7 inch press picture courtesy of Apple

An iPhone or iPad running iOS 11 has native support for the HEIF image file format

A new image file format has started to surface over the last few years but it is based on a different approach to storing image files.

This file format, known as the HEIF or High Efficiency Image Format, is designed and managed by the MPEG group who have defined a lot of commonly-used video formats. It is being seen by some as the “still-image version of HEVC” with HEVC being the video codec used for 4K UHDTV video files. But it uses HEVC as the preferred codec for image files and will provide support for newer and better image codecs, including newer codecs offering lossless image compression in a similar vein to what FLAC offers for audio files.

Unlike JPEG and the other image files that have existed before it, HEIF is seen as a “container file” for multiple image and other objects rather than just one image file and some associated metadata. As well, the HEIF file format and the HEVC codec are designed to take advantage of today’s powerful computing hardware integrated in our devices.

The primary rule here for HEIF is that it is a container file format speci

Simple concept view of the HEIF image file format

fically for collections of still images. It is not really about replacing one of the video container file formats like MP4 or MKV which are specifically used primarily for video footage.

What will this mean?

One HEIF file could contain a collection of image files such as “mapping images” to improve image playback in certain situations. It can also contain the images taken during a “burst” shot where the camera takes a rapid sequence of images. This can also apply with image bracketing where you take a sequence of shots at different exposure, focus or other camera settings to identify an ideal image setup or create an advanced composite photograph.

This leads to HEIF dumping GIF as the carrier for animated images that are often provided on the Web. Here, you could use software to identify a sequence of images to be played like a video, including having them repeat in a loop thanks to the addition of in-file metadata. This emulates what the Apple Live Photos function was about with iOS and can allow users to create high-quality animations, cinemagraphs (still photos with a small discreet looping animation) or slide-shows in the one HEIF file.

HEIF uses the same codec associated with 4K UHDTV for digital photos

There is also the ability to store non-image objects like text, audio or video in an HEIF file along with the images which can lead to a lot of things. For example, you could set a smartphone to take a still and short video clip at the same time like with Apple Live Photos or you could have images with text or audio notes. On the other hand, you could attach “stamps”, text and emoji to a series of photos that will be sent as an email or message like what is often done with the “stories” features in some of the social networks. In some ways it could be seen as a way to package vector-graphics images with a “compatibility” or “preview” bitmap image.

The HEIF format will also support non-destructive metadata-based editing where this editing is carried out using metadata that describes rectangular crops or image rotations. This is so you could revise an edit at a later time or obtain another edit from the same master image.

It also leads to the use of “derived images” which are the results of one of these edits or image compositions like an HDR or stitched-together panorama image. These can be generated at the time the file is opened or can be created by the editing or image management software and inserted in the HEIF file with the original images. Such a concept could also extend to the rendering and creation of a video object that is inserted in the HEIF file.

HEIF makes better use of advanced photo options offered by advanced cameras

Here, having a derived image or video inserted in the HEIF file can benefit situations where the playback or server setup doesn’t have enough computing power to create an edit or composition of acceptable quality in an acceptable timeframe. Similarly, it could answer situations where the software used either at the production/editing, serving or playback devices does a superlative job of rendering the edits or compositions.

The file format even provides alternative viewing options for the same resource. For example, a user could see a wide-angle panorama image based on a series of shots as either a wide-aspect-ration image or a looping video sequence representing the camera panning across the scene.

What kind of support exists for the HEIF format?

At the moment, Apple’s iOS 11, tvOS 11 (Apple TV) and MacOS High Sierra provide native support for the HEIF format. The new iPhone and iPad provide hardware-level support for the HEVC codec that is part of this format and the iOS 11 platform along with the iCloud service provides inherent exporting of these images for email and other services not implementing this format.

Microsoft is intending to integrate HEIF in to Windows 10 from the Spring Creators Update onwards. As well, Google is intending to bake it in to the “P” version of Android which is their next feature version of that mobile platform.

As for dedicated devices like digital cameras, TVs and printers; there isn’t any native support for HEIF due to it being a relatively new image format. But most likely this will come about through newer devices or devices acquiring newer software.

Let’s not forget that newer image player and editing / management software that is continually maintained will be able to work with these files. The various online services like Dropbox, Apple iCloud or Facebook are or will be offering differing levels of HEIF image-file support the the evolution of their platform. Depending on the service, this will be to hold the files “as-is” or to export and display them in a “best-case” format.

There will be some compatibility issues with hardware and software that doesn’t support this format. This may be rectified with operating systems, image editing / management software or online services that offer HEIF file-conversion abilities. Such software will need to export particular images or derivative images in an HEIF file as a JPEG image for stills or a GIF, MP4 or QuickTime MOV file for timed sequences, animations and similar material.

In the context of DLNA-based media servers, it may be about a similar approach to an online service where the media server has to be able to export original or derived images from one of these files held on a NAS as a JPEG still image or a GIF or MP4 video file where appropriate.

Conclusion

As the container-based HEIF image format comes on to the scene as the possible replacement for JPEG and GIF image files, it could be about an image file format that shows promise for both the snapshooter or the advanced photographer.

Send to Kindle