Computer- and internet-delivered media content to the living room is big business. Or at least, it will be. For those of us looking for a decent all-in-one computer-based media system for the living room, there's quite an array of choice, but not much in the way of standards.
Any system with decent graphics and sound can be the backbone to a decent media system. All the other bits and pieces are really down to personal choice. The only limiting factor so far has been your choice of operating system. If you want a Windows-based solution, then you are either looking at Windows XP with a third-party media centre application on top, or Windows XP Media Center Edition (MCE).
There's a problem either way - Windows XP can be purchased non-OEM so you can build your own system if you're so inclined, and have the time and expertise to make it work. If you don't, then Windows MCE is for you, but that can only be purchased OEM. So, it's off to the computer store you go.
System manufacturers have invested a lot of money into creating MCE systems, but again there's a lack of standards. A machine running MCE could be running absolutely anything under the hood.
Into the fray comes Intel Viiv, released earlier this year. It's not so much a technology as a set of technologies, all designed to give manufacturers a set of system guidelines, and consumers the guarantee that their new system is up to a particular ratified standard. Leveraging off this is the whole "Viiv experience" - content and downloads available to the proud owner of a Viiv system.
Viiv under the Hood - Hardware
For a system to be considered fully compatible with Viiv, it has to be based on one of the following motherboard chipsets: Mobile 945GM Express, 945GT Express, 945P Express, 945G Express, 955X Express, 975X Express, or the new P965 Express. It also has to be powered by a Pentium D, Core Duo, Core 2 Duo or Core 2 Extreme or Pentium Extreme Edition processor, and have a PRO/100 VM, Pro/100 VE or PRO/1000 PM LAN adaptor.
It also has to support Intel's Quick Resume technology. This is a software-driven feature which puts the system into a low-power state, killing video and audio, but continuing to supply power to the CPU and fans. Tasks which do not require user intervention, like media streaming and scheduled content recording can still take place in this low-power state.
So, a Viiv-compliant system will have a fair chunk of hardware under the hood. The hardware base has been selected to facilitate certain media-centric tasks, like simultaneous playback/record, content streaming, HD playback and on-the-fly encoding. Intel 7.1 HD audio will also be a standard (this isn't a requirement, just something you get with the chipsets) as well as the usual suite of USB2.0 and Firewire ports and Intel Matrix RAID.
Video support is still very much down to the capabilities of the graphics card. Some Viiv systems may come with Intel integrated graphics, but the vast majority will be sporting ATI- or NVIDIA-based cards to get the full benefit of home theatre-standard video and high definition playback, as well as multiple output support (VGA, DVI, S-Video and now we are starting to HDMI, too).
On some Viiv systems, the graphics output is passed to a front-mounted LCD touch panel, bringing a new method of system control and navigation to home theatre machines - very cool.
DVD playback isn't tied to one particular technology, so Viiv systems will support Blu-Ray and HD-DVD in future without any system changes required.
There will also be a requirement for a DRM chip - Digital Rights Management. But that needs a section all to itself.
Viiv under the Hood - Software
The heart and soul of a Viiv machine is Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005. Or, in the coming months, Windows Vista Ultimate Edition, which features the Media Center application as part of the install.
Interestingly, the Viiv prerequisites don't include a TV tuner, which is a bit odd. But perhaps it's because Intel doesn't really care what sort of tuner card you use. Windows XP MCE does require a tuner card, and they do care what sort you use, so just stick to their guidelines.
All the software Intel has released so far for Viiv machines (drivers, etc) is geared to run on Windows XP MCE, so there's no question about using an alternate configuration like MediaPortal on Windows XP. It's not that such a setup wouldn't work, but it would break the requirements for Viiv and the Intel updates wouldn't work. It would also run into problems trying to use DRM-protected content.
And Linux/OSX systems have been left out in the cold. Some people are naturally frustrated with Intel's close partnership with Microsoft, feeling that it's yet another example of stifling the competition. Whatever the reason however, there's no doubt that the Viiv experience will in reality be a Microsoft experience.
Digital Rights Management (DRM)
And that's as good a link-up as any to talk about the Viiv bugbear - DRM.
As already mentioned, all Intel Viiv machines will feature a DRM chip - an onboard feature to enable identification of digitally-signed media from partner providers. This is backed up by DRM software embedded into Windows XP MCE.
The idea is essentially that in this new world of media content delivered straight to your lounge room, content providers have the option of protecting their product using DRM, so that you can't use it across multiple platforms - whether that is streaming, encoding or copying.
Needless to say, this has caused quite a ruckus in the online community, who claim that the principle of "fair use" will be wide open to violation. Fair use, in this context, is the ability to purchase something and then do with it pretty much what you like, short of making it available to other people, thus circumventing a sales transaction and breaking copyright.
For example, you're allowed to buy a CD and then rip it to MP3 to put on your iPod, or stream it from the media server to the stereo. But you can't take those MP3s and give them to someone else.
Critics claim that DRM-protected content could prevent you from doing anything under the fair use umbrella, due its reliance on the DRM hardware/software package. You won't be able to share media across devices which don't conform to the Viiv/DRM standard.
Interestingly, the push for DRM doesn't seem to be coming from Intel themselves. They've been quoted recently stating that they're taking a "see no evil, hear no evil" approach to media ownership. They're not interested in enforcing digital rights across the Viiv platform, now or in the future. The DRM feature is for content providers to make use of.
While it's encouraging that Intel isn't actively pushing limitation of usage via DRM, it's naïve to imagine that providers won't make full use of it. Intel may not be explicitly promoting media lockdown, but they've provided the means. And providers ALWAYS have the motive.
And just when you thought that DRM sounded worrying enough, DTCP-IP enters the fray. Not only are providers poised to use DRM to their economic advantage, BUT they're concerned that streaming that protected content across the airwaves will expose it, allowing potential interception by a non-DRM protected device.
So DTCP-IP (Digital Transmission Content Protection over Internet Protocol) will be used as a communications catalyst. It uses 128-bit SSL encryption to ensure that media content streamed out from a Viiv box is protected. It leverages off TCP/IP but it's not restricted to any particular physical medium - wired or wireless is fine.
However, and this is the killer, DTCP-IP reinforces the DRM model. It's not just an innocent bystander. To stream using DTCP-IP, you have to have devices capable of receiving it AND you have to be streaming content written to comply with the DTCP-IP standards. The most popular music store on the internet, iTunes, does not provide DTCP-IP-compliant content.
So, buy yourself a Viiv machine, and you're locked out of iTunes.
Viiv vs. "Viiv Ready"
The great thing about the Viiv platform is that system manufacturers have clear guidelines in terms of the chipsets and CPU configurations they can play with. So it's quite straightforward to put together a system which is "Viiv ready", and there are already quite a few out on the market.
But be wary. There are more requirements to a machine meeting the Viiv prerequisites than just the hardware specs. They must also have Windows XP MCE and DRM hardware/software, and it seems that not all of the systems currently available are sporting the DRM chips yet.
And as already mentioned, you can't buy MCE off your own initiative while remaining within the legal bounds of the license - MCE is OEM only.
So, a proclaimed "Viiv Ready" machine without an OS is not really ready at all. It just happens to use the right chipset/CPU combination to warrant a shiny Intel sticker. And even if you circumnavigate the MCE licensing problems you'll still find yourself locked out of DRM-protected content.
Not much fun.
From a pure hardware-centric, computing enthusiast perspective, Intel Viiv is great. Having base hardware and software standards, guaranteeing a certain level of functionality, is great for both consumers and manufacturers. It also assists software developers, who are given a much clearer target to work towards.
Viiv machines will also give a new experience in home theatre computing. To date, a computer attached to your TV was still very much a standard computer, no matter how funky and streamlined the case. Viiv machines have the potential to behave much more like highly advanced PVRs, requiring less computing knowledge while still delivering the functionality of a computer.
The problem with Viiv is the shift towards DRM and DTCP-IP. Despite Intel claiming that they are not promoting content protection, there's no denying that they have handed content providers a golden money press. In its many forms DRM has, so far, made not the slightest dint in media piracy. There's nothing that can't be broken, and nothing which hasn't been. All that DRM does is confuse and frustrate end users, who end up paying more money for content that's not necessarily better. "Premium" content generally refers to the price tag.
So while Intel is doing everything in its power to stay at arm's-length from the bad press that DRM inevitably attracts, this may prove to be a false hope in the long term.
For consumers, Viiv is a strange mix of good news and bad. As it matures, we can only hope that the pendulum will swing across to good.