Taking Stock of the Digital Lifestyle

In January 2001, Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates announced his company's plans to embrace what he called the "digital lifestyle," in which digital devices such as cameras, portable audio, computers, and PDAs will enhance our lives. Days later, Apple Computer CEO Steve Jobs announced a similar initiative dubbed the "digital hub," in which the company's Macintosh computers form the foundation of a connected existence that encompasses the same devices and technologies Microsoft had just embraced. Talk is talk, of course, and at the time, how the computer industry would react to these two industry leaders was unclear.

Call it what you like--the digital lifestyle, the digital hub, or the connected home--but in the 2-and-a-half years since Gates and Jobs made their announcements, one fact is clear: Consumers have openly embraced the notion of taking computing to the next level by adding a slew of connected devices to the mix. And the market has responded. Major PC makers such as Apple, Dell, Gateway, HP, and Sony have reorganized their entire companies--or at the very least their consumer product lines--around a product mix that extends far beyond the standard beige box. Today, these companies offer a wealth of devices, software, and services that can help customers get the most out of their PCs. Naturally, we embraced this trend long ago at Connected Home EXPRESS.

As is so often the case with technology, changes and improvements happen quickly, and as I do every several months, I thought I'd briefly take a step back and evaluate where things stand. I'm interested in knowing what you're doing with your computers, as well as in what you're confused about and in which topics you're most interested. So this week, I'd like to highlight some of the topics I'm working on for future articles and, if possible, get your feedback. I want Connected Home EXPRESS to be both valuable and informative. Here are some of the areas I'm exploring.

Digital Photography
A new generation of high-quality, low-cost, easy-to-use digital cameras is quickly making traditional photography obsolete, especially for consumers. I'm looking at several products that fall into this category, including image-management software from Adobe Systems, Microsoft, and others; photo-editing packages; photo scanners that include the ability to quickly scan multiple 3" x 5" and 4" x 6" prints; and photo printers.

Digital Music
Thanks to the sudden arrival of several commercial digital-download services, digital music is hotter than ever. I'm evaluating various hard disk-based portable audio devices, including the Apple iPod and Creative Labs' exciting new NOMAD Jukebox Zen NX, and various analog-to-digital audio-recording technologies.

Digital Video
Digital Video (DV) remains one of the most difficult digital-media technologies to master, but thanks to new low-cost USB 2.0-based and proprietary solutions, you can now easily convert older analog video sources such as wedding videos and other home movies to digital formats that are easy to share and store. I'm evaluating these devices, various software-transcoding technologies, and modern DVD-creation utilities to see which of these products meets your needs for your most precious memories. In addition, I'm looking at ways you can teleconference for free over the Internet by using low-cost WebCams and Instant Messaging (IM) applications.

Digital TV Convergence
Windows XP Media Center Edition (XP MCE) is set to take off this fall with a new version that offers exciting new features that will be available from a range of PC makers in a variety of form factors. But XP MCE isn't the only game in town: Companies such as SnapStream Media continue to innovate digital video recording (DVR) for other PC users, and dedicated hardware such as TiVo devices and other networked set-top boxes promise to extend the reach of your PC into the living room, offering you access to music, photos, and movies.

PC Technologies
Wide-screen LCD monitors are just starting to become available, although most of them are still pretty expensive. But after you've experienced a wide screen, you'll never again be satisfied with an old-fashioned 4:3 monitor. PC speakers and sound technologies have also improved dramatically, negating the need for high-end stereo equipment. For many people, a PC can be an all-in-one device, while others might choose to purchase a variety of non-PC devices to meet their needs; I'm evaluating both approaches.

Mobile Technologies
Inexpensive wide-screen notebook computers, Intel Centrino chipsets, USB memory fobs, and a slew of modern ports and technologies have made portable computers more useful than ever at home, at the dorm, and on the road. But notebooks aren't the only mobile devices worth considering. PDAs based on the Palm OS and Pocket PC 2003 are less expensive and easier to use than ever, and modern cell phones often offer features such as integrated cameras, IM-like chatting, and music playback. In today's world, you don't have to be disconnected just because you're not physically connected.

Home Networking
Powerline-based networking devices promise to offer fast networking speeds in places in which wireless capability is problematic, and newer wireless technologies such as 802.11g offer better security and much better performance than today's more common 802.11b-based products. I'm evaluating several 802.11g-based Access Points (APs) and wireless cards, various Powerline-based networking products, and Bluetooth to see which of these technologies should have a place in the connected home of the near future.

This list contains a lot of information, and I'm sure you're also interested in other topics. Let me know which topics you'd like me to discuss, and together we'll make the next several months of Connected Home EXPRESS the most exciting yet. Thanks for reading.

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