Kris Abel’s Tech Life | A Look At HP’s New MediaSmart Television

Kris Abel’s Tech Life | A Look At HP’s New MediaSmart TelevisionI spent yesterday afternoon over at Hewlett-Packard Canada’s digital living room, taking a look at their latest television concept – the MediaSmart Television – a 37” LCD High Definition display that can wirelessly connect to your home computer and play videos, high definition tv shows, digital images, and music that stored on your computer’s hard drive. As HP exec Jan Luc Blakborn explained to me, his company has realized that today’s kids are growing up in a YouTube world where watching viral videos on blogs, streaming tv shows from Network websites, and downloading movies from peer-to-peer networks is becoming just as common for today’s kids as sitting down in front of the TV in the living room. Mr. Blakborn says the idea of getting all of your entertainment from one source, one white cable coming out of your wall, is now “old school” and the “new school” is a generation of kids who feel quite naturally that your selection of TV shows and music should come from many different sources, the internet, portable devices, etc. So HP is trying to pave the way for a new generation of televisions that cater to that idea and this year they’re doing so just with one television model to experiment, to see what the reaction is. The idea is that, once the demand becomes commonplace, HP will have it all figured out and be able to offer the best solution on the market. The television comes with two rabbit ear-like antennae built into its backside. These add another four inches or so to width of the television, but won’t get in the way if you want to mount the set on the wall like many people like to do. The rabbit-ears will give you about a 100 foot range towards connecting to a wireless base station, home computer or laptop. The rabbit ears supports 802.11a/b/g and should you not want to use them, the set also has a 10/100 based-T Ethernet port for a direct cable connection, either to a laptop directly or to another wireless adaptor.In addition to the usual package of cables, instruction manual, and TV remote that comes with most TVs, this one also comes with an HP installation disc. This you pop into any home computer or laptop running Windows XP or Media Centre and it will instantly take you through a set-up wizard to detect and add the television to your home network. For the tech-savvy, the set-up interfaces with Windows Media Connect and is also UPnP Media server compatible. Once connected, software built into the television itself will connect with your computer and retrieve a catalog of all your movies, digital pictures, and music. It maintains the same infrastructure as on your home computer. So if you have your videos stored under the “Harry’s Secret Stash” folder on your computer, that’s what will come up on the television too. Sitting in front of the television, you access the computer in the same way as any other component in the entertainment centre. You pick up the remote and press the source button. So if “Input 1” is your cable/satellite box and “Input 2” is your DVD player and “Input 3” is your PlayStation 2, then “Input 4” is your home computer. As soon as you switch the source, a blue menu screen pops up offering a simple selection of four icons – photos, videos, music, and services. Selecting any of the first three icons will bring you to a directory. Scroll through the file names with your remote and then click the one you want and it plays. Very basic, very simple, the only options include a slideshow feature where you can choose a song to play with it. Last year HP released a couple of televisions with a similar kind of software in it, but found that most consumers found it too complicated, so for this, their first official wireless TV, they wanted it to be as easy to use as possible. Its important to note that there is no hard drive, that the content itself, the photos the music, etc. is never stored on the television, that the LCD set simply grabs the content as a signal from your computer and displays it the same way it does with a television broadcast signal. In terms of video files, the television supports an amazing range of file formats including DivX and Windows Media Video High Definition. Yes, it can actually stream high definition video in either of those formats wirelessly to your television and the quality is seamless. We watched a clip and I was impressed. They explained to me that, because most High-Def videos available on the internet are already compressed, it’s easy to send them over a wireless connection and still maintain the quality.Interesting, because at last week’s Frat House Event, Intel’s Doug Cooper explained to me that the reason his team could not get their computer to wirelessly stream videos to the living room television (using Viiv technology and a Pinnacle media hub box) was because the videos included on the PC system where High Definition. That PC at the Intel event? It was on loan from Hewlett-Packard and was the same PC now connected up to the SmartMedia television. The high-definition video I was watching on HP’s LCD television? The same one that Intel couldn’t get to work on their demo. The forth icon that comes up on the blue menu is “Services” which is a spot reserved for any companies looking to partner up with HP to offer up a video rental or online game service. Right now for demo purposes they showed a connection to Rhapsody’s online music service. HP is the first to admit that they’ve tried to offer online services before, through their selection of Media Centre PCs and that its rarely used as few content companies have proven to be interested in adding their service to the program, but they’ve left it there because the media landscape is always changing and who knows?The television is designed for firmware upgrades, meaning that if HP were to develop a cool new feature or service upgrade in the future, you can simply download the upgrades to your set (and not feel left out because you didn’t wait six months to buy your TV set). A couple of unusual choices include the lack of memory card slots or a USB port for portable devices. In the case of SD card slots, which HP has tried out on their TVs before, they say their research showed that less than 5% of consumers actually use the memory card slots to watch photos from their cameras. In the case of portable devices they feel that most people will store their videos and music on their PCs first and then transfer them to portable devices, so the content is already on the network. It’s important to note that this is not a review. I haven’t had the chance to perform any video image tests on the television, nor have I had a chance to go through the set-up process myself and see just “how easy” it really is. The HP staff did admit that when they first connected the set to their desktop PC there was a brief battle between Windows Media Centre, Intel’s Viiv software, and HP’s own software as they all tried to launch and be the ones to connect to the television.Hewlett-Packard is a computer company first and only recently has become a television manufacturer, so while the SmartMedia concept is a good idea, the television as a television may not be the best choice on the market. I’m hoping later on to be able to test out just that aspect.An exclusive to Best Buy, HP says the MediaSmart is reaching stores now for $2,799, but according to the Best Buy website the release date is the 29th with a regular price of $2999 and a sale price of $2,699. (over the years I’ve received complaints about not getting the prices exactly right in my segments, now you know why). It’s a widescreen display with stereo speakers installed at the bottom beneath the picture. It has a 1366×768 resolution that allows it to take 1080i content, but its strength is really as a 720p television. It has a 6ms response time and a 176 degree viewing angle. It includes HDMI connections and a built-in HDTV tuner for over-the-air broadcasts (which we have very little of here in Canada).