Monday, December 17, 2007

New FireWire S3200 Spec

Back in September, the 'USB Promoter Group' announced the next 'USB 3.0' specification. Many people were speculating that it might be the death blow for FireWire. Well, the FireWire folks aren't standing still. They just announced their next FireWire version called 'S3200', which builds on the earlier spec of IEEE1394b, also called FireWire 800. S3200 quadruples the speed from 800 Kbps to 3.2 Gbps and can use existing FireWire 800 cables and connectors.

We'll probably first see S3200 used with storage devices like external hard disks and optical drives. Eventually, they hope it will be adopted by consumer electronics manufacturers and used with home entertainment products. The new spec will let consumers connect HDTVs, set-top boxes and computers via coax cable with distances more than 100 meters.

Even though many motherboards are designed with a FireWire port, all include several USB 2.0 connections. With the huge success of USB and the expensive FireWire royalties, unless consumers see a big advantage like better audio and video performance, I think FireWire S3200 will have difficulty becoming as common as USB. Maybe people will understand that FireWire was specifically designed to be used for high speed streaming data and is ideal for a hard drive moving large chunks of data, like video. USB was originally designed for low bandwidth, low latency peripherals, like mice and keyboards. It allocates data bandwidth in inverse proportion to demand, so for example, mass storage gets whatever's left after mice, keyboards and tablets have had their share.

Here's a little more technical information on the topic. The USB 3.0 spec claims transfer speeds up to 10 times faster than USB 2.0, but the real world throughput of FireWire S3200 and its peer-to-peer technology might be better because of the overhead caused by USB's host/client technology. FireWire uses a double-simplex architecture, so for example, with the original FireWire speed of 400 Mbps, the actual aggregate speed is 800 Mbps. USB 1.0/2.0 uses a half-duplex architecture and 10% of its bandwidth is reserved for host commands. There are more delays inserted between TX and RX packets while the host and target devices' transceivers switch directions, wasting several microseconds each time. However, FireWire S3200 might become irrelevant because USB 3.0 is suppose to be 4.8 Gbps using double-simplex fibre, which is faster than S3200 on raw speed and finally gets rid of USB1/2's half-duplex overhead.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Wisconsin Governor's Business Plan Contest

We've decided to participate in the Wisconsin Governor's Business Plan Contest to try to win possible seed capital. The contest description also mentions that participating in this contest may also provide valuable assistance that might help taking the company to the next level. We certainly could use some advice when it comes to manufacturing and taking our products to market. The contest consists of three consecutive phases:
  1. an idea abstract
  2. executive summary
  3. final business plans
Once we complete the idea abstract, a panel of judges takes two weeks to pick the companies that move on to the next phase. For the idea abstract we need to provide responses to four basic questions in less than 250 words. Contestants must choose between four different business categories - Advanced Manufacturing, Life Sciences, Information Technology, and Business Services. Our business does include some IT because we will be developing software for our drivers and control panel applications, but if we really have to choose something it should probably be advanced manufacturing. Here's what I've written in response to the sections for the idea abstract:

Product or Service Description:

Amplio Audio is in the Home Theater Personal Computer industry with an exclusive focus on the audio component of the Home Theater experience. Amplio’s product combines the functionality of a soundcard, A/V receiver and amplifier into a single device, providing consumers with an affordable, audiophile quality listening experience.

Customer Definition: Their Needs - Your Solution:

Our target customers are audio/video enthusiasts who use their personal computers (PCs) to play music, watch live TV, movies, and other content as well as to control and manage their media libraries. Amplio’s products provide customers the best possible audio for their media systems through a direct digital interface to their audio data complemented by a world-class amplifier system.

Market Description, Size and Sales Strategy:

The primary market Amplio Audio hopes to attract are relatively young, technically-savvy, Internet connected North American males with some disposable income. Secondary markets will include the same profile except woman and international markets and professional A/V installers and businesses or educational institutions that purchase presentation equipment. Using the market buildup method to analyze our potential market, we determined the size to be approximately $69 million. Customers will be able to purchase our products directly from Amplio Audio’s website. This is the most effective channel based on our customers preferred way to purchase electronics and computer related products.

Competition: In this section identify possible competitors.

Amplio’s products are designed to compete with the high end of their target market while selling for significantly less than current offerings. This market is currently served with a combination of products from several manufacturers, none of which are designed specifically for home theater applications.

We have until January 31, 2008 before the judges look at our idea abstract, so we will probably make modifications before that time. Feel free to leave a comment if you have any suggestions on ways we can make improvements.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The HD Format War - Be Neutral and Pick Both.

I should have written this post back in October, but been a little busy with other things...

The consumer electronics press likes to make a big deal about the HD format war between HD DVD and Blu-ray. Does anybody really care? Most of my friends don't even seem to know either exists. They seem quite content with their DVDs. I thought their lack of interest was because of the confusion created by the choice of two different systems and apparent changing of alliances from the major movie studios, but most haven't even been paying attention to any of that news.

For those of us that do pay attention, why not just use both formats, especially if you use an HTPC. Back in September I wrote a post about the LG hybrid drive that supports both HD DVD and Blu-ray. Actually, I first wrote about these way back in May, but I was more excited about LG's hybrid drive that could also burn Blu-ray discs. LG also announced that its "Super Blu" BH200 HD DVD / Blu-ray combo player is now available at retailers nationwide for a not so cheap $999.

Well, LG started selling these drives in Japan back in September. They finally showed up in North America toward the third week of October. NCIXUS, a Canadian vendor, was the earliest reliable source. They were offering them for around $275 and they were selling faster than they could get them in stock. For some strange reason they weren't available from US online vendors like Newegg.com and PCAlchemy until a few weeks later and they were priced a little higher at around $300.

Now there seem to be a lot of very satisfied owners who no longer have to worry about which format wins. I will probably join them in the near future. Originally, I was waiting for the drive that included the Blu-ray burning capability. Since the Blu-ray blank media prices are probably going to be prohibitively expensive, I'll probably wait to see if the price of the player-only drive goes down when the burner becomes available. I owned a double layer DVD burner for a long time before the media prices were reasonable. At least you didn't have to pay a premium for those DVD-DL drives. The current pricing for a single 25 GB BD-R disc is around $10 - $17.

Monday, December 10, 2007

HTPC Help, What Happened?

Back in August, I wrote a post about some guy, Troy aka pcCinema, who on the AVS Forum proposed to help people build HTPCs. He was going to test different components to make sure they could play all the disc formats (HD included), play and record TV, play music, etc., etc. This would be real helpful for people that have struggled with matching the right hardware with drivers and codecs to play their media glitch free. He would post a list of components that passed his tests so people could just purchase the hardware from online vendors and feel confident that it would just work. He was also going to create installation routines to help people get the correct software, drivers and codecs to tie everything together seamlessly. A lot of people responded to his offer and a few of them offered to help out. A couple of guys, greeniguana and binary64, offered to do more sophisticated scripting to take it to the next level. This included tracking the current versions and automatically going to websites to download the most stable and compatible software. Like I said, it was pretty promising and it generated a lot of interest judging by how many people were responding and reading the thread. There were quite a few people who even donated to a fund so Troy could buy some of the hardware needed to start testing.

Troy/pcCinema decided to quit his own project. I don't know exactly what happened. You could try reading the thread to see if you can decipher it, but it looks like pcCinema just couldn't continue the project. Maybe his injuries (I think injured back) were more than he could handle. Or some people accused him of being a scammer and using his plan to get some donations so he could buy some hardware. I think the former is probably the real reason. There were a few people who were suspicious from the start and they questioned his motives. He didn't handle the criticism very well and probably helped fuel the fires of doubt. After quiting, it would have made sense for Troy/pcCinema to either return the donations or pass the hardware on to people who were willing to help out with the project. He did neither and instead probably pissed off everyone who trusted him, especially greeniquana and binary64.

Meanwhile, it looked like greeniguana and binary64 were going to continue on without him. If they could get their software to work with any hardware, they could really help a lot of people. If you are interested in what they are doing, just respond to the original thread. They also meet every so often on the IRC chat line called "HTPC Project." I think the irc address is 71.244.119.244:6667. The hostname is irc.htpcprojectchat.com. If you search the thread you can probably find the information you need to contact them.

There was also a guy named "renethx" who provided a lot of really good information about hardware. Troy/pcCinema basically delegated all hardware choices to him because of his impressive knowledge. As it turns out, renethx created his own thread with detailed hardware recommendations. I even used it to help select a few components to upgrade our demo HTPC.

So maybe there is still hope. Between renethx's hardware recommendations and the other guy's software scripts, people can find some very good information and potential setup tools to help them build and setup advanced and stable HTPCs.