Roadtesting the wireless home
Linksys WM11B - hero or zero?
Review I heard a funny story a couple of months ago. A colleague of mine went to a presentation about a new piece of automation kit that enabled the remote control of various pieces of household equipment. "What's really great," enthused the presenter, "is that you can turn off the kitchen light when you are upstairs!" My friend couldn't resist the opportunity to ask the obvious, yet all-too-infrequent question. "Excuse me," he said. "Why exactly would anyone want to do that?" In the pause that followed, it became obvious that the presenter had not rehearsed an answer. What also became obvious was, if he needed to rehearse an answer, he already had a problem.
There have been plenty of examples over the last few years of techno-whiz devices that are going to change peoples' lives. Indeed, these things go way back - we chortle over the adverts for convenience products that came out in the 1950s, and guffaw at Morecambe and Wise's automated house where the armchairs move around on rails, all the time ignoring the fact that we are all still suckers for such gadgetry. Like a lottery winner or a pop star, every now and then one such device really does have a major impact - the mobile phone, say, or the MP3 player, but none have thus far succeeded in changing the way we spend our lives at home.
It was thus with a troubled mind that I accepted the challenge of road testing the Linksys wireless media adaptor. Troubled, not least because I had been wooed by its capabilities and gadget value, without really asking myself, "why exactly would anyone want to do that?" When the box arrived some six months ago, I resolved to find out.
What's this all about then? The WM11B is one of Linksys' product offerings for home networking. To make use of it, you first need to have a wireless home network. You'll also need to be the kind of person who has ripped all of your CDs to your computer hard drive. Given this starting point, you may have experienced that slight twinge of resentment when you actually have to open a jewel case and get out a CD to play it in your stereo. If so, according to the literature, the WMA11B is for you.
The Linksys product is very simple in concept. It plugs into your TV and stereo equipment, and makes a wireless connection to your home computer. Once configured, you can browse your hard drive for music using your TV screen, and you can play it using the stereo. At the same time, the device can hunt for still images, and display them on the TV screen as a slideshow. Simple, and effective. But does it work, and is it useful?
I confess to having had a few configuration difficulties with the WMA11B. This wasn't helped by the fact I already have a Buffalo wireless hub. When I configured the Linksys device with a network cable, everything worked perfectly, but I just could not get the wireless connection to play. I even resorted to calling the helpline number, which achieved only a "Sorry, we haven't tested that configuration response from the technical support person". How fortunate that I had other routes into Linksys, and the problem was resolved - it was an SSID incompatibility, for anyone out there that cares.
Once up and running, the device did exactly what it said on the box. The user interface was indeed effective, but a little too simple in places - it was screen-based, a bit like a website, but also it relied on a remote control for access so complex operations were slow or nonexistent. There may be playlist functionality, but I really wouldn't want to face the challenge! Similarly, the slideshows were dependent on the folder structure on the computer, which was not necessarily how I'd choose to display them. Operation via the TV screen caused the occasional glitch - I got lost in the menus and wasn't able to reset my location without a "hard reset", that is, turning the whole thing off and on again. Things went particularly wrong when trying to change the slideshow settings at the same time as playing music, but then how often would you want to do that?
Performance-wise, things worked remarkably well. The audio quality was perfectly acceptable to my uncultured ears, but I get the feeling that a surround sound home theatre setup might be a little excessive for MP3's played over a wireless connection through a small box. The images on the TV screen were a bonus - I wonder if this isn't the killer app for people who hate the idea of a blank TV screen. Also, there were some unexpected benefits, for example the front room became instantly tidier without the pile of CD's haphazardly stacked next to the stereo.
One fundamental question
There remains one question to be answered, and you know what it is: "Why exactly would anyone want to do that?" To be absolutely honest, the jury is still out. There are certain scenarios in which I could see the Linksys box making a lot of sense, but to have it as a separate device seems to be more of a short-term expedient than a longer term reality. There are a number of other ways to achieve the same thing - for example, iPod users can plug their hallowed devices directly into the stereo, job done - as can laptop users for that matter.
From an industry perspective there does seem to be a place for converged technologies such as the WMA11B, but the fact is, however, nobody has the monopoly on how exactly these things will look, or how they will work together. Device integration is the norm from the hardware manufacturers, indeed, the chances are a company such as Linksys is about to launch a home DVD/CD/MP3 player with integrated wireless reception, and in the future this will probably come with a built-in screen. In this way one of the major hurdles will already be overcome: namely, getting the different devices to work together. The failure of Linksys technical support was a symptom of a wider problem, namely how impossible it is to guarantee the compatibility of wireless devices. Clearly, gadgets like this need to work out of the box or they won't be accepted at all, and nor should they be.
Wireless networking, despite its promise and potential, is still at the early adopter phase in the home. Manufacturers face a difficult choice, as they have to test products in an immature market, without knowing exactly what people will find the most useful. In the meantime the continued integration of hardware platforms suggests a time when people buy an all-in-one device and use the features they need. Maybe by then, we'll be able to get by with a few less remote controls.