Many companies have begun to leverage the recent technological advances in digital multimedia to improve corporate communications. One example is the way that companies are using digital file formats, such as MP3 and WMA (for audio) and MPEG and AVI (for video), to distribute messages from executives, company announcements, and other types of audio/video reports.
Previously, to take advantage of multimedia presentations, companies had to produce audio or video tapes that needed to be delivered to various departments, buildings, and branch offices. Now, companies can produce multimedia presentations that can be delivered much more efficiently in digital format. This can save time, money, and other resources—especially if companies take advantage of a new generation of devices such as SMC's Multimedia Receiver, which allow for easy playback of digital audio and video files on a conference room TV and stereo system. We're going to take a closer look at SMC's product, see how it works, and examine its benefits in a business setting.
EZ-Stream Multimedia Receiver
The full name of SMC's new multimedia product is quite a mouthful: "EZ-Stream Universal 2.4GHz/5GHz Wireless Multimedia Receiver." The wireless moniker is included because the unit has a built-in 802.11a/b/g wireless adapter (in addition to a built-in 10/100 Ethernet adapter).
The device essentially acts as bridge between a TV (and sound system) and a server (running a piece of SMC software) that hosts audio, video, and image files. The unit, shown in Figure A, is fairly small in stature—it's about 7 inches tall and 7 inches deep—and it comes with its own remote control that is pretty simple to use, even for nontechies. Its retail price is $249 U.S.
How it works
The SMC Multimedia Receiver connects to a TV and stereo system using standard RCA yellow, red, and white cables. (A set of cables is included with the unit.) If you have a 10baseT or 100baseTX Ethernet drop near the receiver, you can connect an Ethernet cable to the Ethernet port on the back of the unit. Otherwise, you can set up the unit to connect to the corporate network via an 802.11a, 802.11b, or 802.11g wireless connection. The unit's built-in wireless adapter works with all three wireless standards.
Before you fire up the unit, you should install the MediaServer software, which the receiver will use to connect and stream multimedia files. I installed this software on a Windows 2000 file server, where I store a bunch of multimedia files. However, you can install the MediaServer software on any Windows 98SE/Me/2000/XP system.
The nice thing is that you don't have to store all of the multimedia files on the system where you install the MediaServer. When you select the folders that contain the files you want to stream to the device, you can also select any network shares that are mounted on the system where the MediaServer is installed. Figure B offers a look at the interface.
Once you have the MediaServer software installed and you've selected the folders containing multimedia files you want to use with the device, you're ready to start the device itself. The first time you start the device, you'll be prompted on the TV screen to select a Wired or Wireless network connection and then provide configuration details for that connection using the remote control.
After that network connection is made and the device links to the MediaServer, a simple menu will appear on the screen with the following five options:
The SMC Multimedia Receiver looks for audio, image, and video files in the selected folders on the MediaServer and then automatically lists those files on the Audio, Picture, and Video menus, respectively. Audio files must be in MP3 format, pictures in JPEG or BMP format, and videos in MPEG format.
As for the other two menu options, the Settings menu allows you to manually change the network configuration and set up other configuration options, like automatic firmware updates. The iRadio option allows you to listen to an Internet radio station. You have to set up the URL on the Internet Radio tab of the MediaServer software for the radio station to be listed.
Although SMC has primarily aimed this product at the home entertainment market, the device can also provide a valuable solution for businesses. It can easily stream audio or video files to a TV/stereo in a conference room, where a business department or division can gather to view and/or listen to an audio or video message. This can be especially useful for businesses that already have company-wide messages from executives and company announcements that take the form of multimedia presentations. The Picture option can also be useful for sharing photos of new products, new buildings, and other images in a corporate meeting room setting.
The SMC Multimedia Receiver does what it is advertised to do: It connects digital multimedia files to TV/stereo systems. This is part of the next frontier of multimedia—connecting computer systems to audio/video electronics. Companies such as Gateway and GoVideo have already released DVD players that can stream audio/video files from a computer, and other companies have similar offerings in the works. However, for a business that wants the capability of sharing multimedia files in a conference room, it's hard to beat the ease of setup and level of control that the SMC Multimedia Receiver offers.
Nevertheless, this is a first-generation product, and it does have its shortcomings. The biggest issue is that it needs to support more file formats, such as WAV, AVI, WMA, WMV, RM, MOV, and MPEG2. SMC says that it plans to expand the file formats that the device supports via firmware updates in the future.
I would also recommend that companies using the device take advantage of the 10/100 Ethernet connection whenever possible. I noticed more consistent and reliable performance from the device while using it with a wired connection. The wireless works fine but seems to suffer from occasional latency issues that can periodically freeze the device for a few seconds.
All in all, this is definitely a technology whose time has come, and SMC has put together a solid first foray into this emerging arena of computer-electronic convergence.