Why Transcoding is Here to Stay
Chris Lanier wrote the other day that he thinks that digital media players are missing an opportunity because they only support a limited set of file formats or codecs. I love Chris’ blog and read his posts regularly to keep up with what’s happening in the HTPC world. I’m a little surprised that I disagree with him, but in this case my opinion is very different.
The point that I think Mr. Lanier missed is that supporting a wider variety of codecs would push the price point of these media devices far past what most would be willing to pay for a consumer electronics box. Hardware decoding is relatively inexpensive because you can buy an IC from Broadcom (or someone else) that handles most of the video processing and decodes H.264, VC-1, MPEG-2, etc. You can hit a $300 price point with a device like this.
However, if you want the horsepower to decode other codecs (especially at HD resolutions) *IN SOFTWARE*, you are going to be looking at high-end PC specs. Can you imagine if the TiVo Series 3 was based on the Core 2 Duo and had a nVidia 7950GT in it? It would definitely have the horsepower to decode just about anything you could throw at it, but no one would buy it when they could buy a fully functional PC for *LESS* that didn’t have a monthly subscription fee.
Transcoding is definitely where it’s at. I want the ability to manage my content from my computer and then make that content available to all the devices I own. Here is where the “support all codecs” on the media player argument is backwards in my mind. I want the devices to be functional and cheap. I want my computer to be the workhorse that can figure out how to make my content available to those other devices and be aware of all their limitations. I want to manage my content centrally too and have all this transcoding and compression happen in the background so I don’t have to deal with it.
I want to buy a HD movie once and then automagically have that content transcoded and resized to play on my iPod, Xbox, AppleTV, laptop, etc. I also want to download flash movies from the internet, divx home movies, and on and on. My media manager should be intelligent enough to know the MPEG block constraints of the iPod’s decoder, that my Xbox Elite is set to use 1080p over HDMI, that my AppleTV can only do 720p at 24fps or 540p at 30fps and so on. I definitely do *NOT* want my iPod to be capable of playing back 20Mbps H.264 content at 1080p because I don’t want to spend $2000 for a video iPod. I am willing to spend big bucks on my main computer though.
I have high hopes that someone will figure this out and create a seamless PC, TV w/extender, mobile solution that will let me enjoy my (legally obtained) content anywhere, anytime, anyhow I want to.