Monthly Archives: October 2009

Online Video Viewership Claims Remind Me of Bob Dole

 

(yah!  This is my first Ad Age column – and is crossposted on their site.  COOL!)

Bob Dole famously cried “where’s the outrage” during his presidential run against Bill Clinton. I’d like to revise that, with a twist, when looking at some recent internet video viewership numbers – but I’ll add in “where’s the analysis” to “where’s the outrage”.

My outrage began when I read a Multichannel News story claiming that Univision’s web series “Vidas Cruzadas” had become one of the “three most-watched online properties ever”, with two million video streams served. The story was served up like fact, without any analysis whatsoever.

My beef: two million views, across 16 episodes works out to roughly 125 thousand views per episode. And if their views followed the typical online video trajectory, the first episode probably accounted for more than half of those total views, with the balance eking out 50,000 or less.

However you slice it, however, that’s hardly enough views to put “Vidas Cruzadas” into the top 100, let alone the top 3. Here at Revision3 we’ve got a lot of shows with more than two million lifetime views – and a couple that consistently do better than 150,000 an episode. Two million’s not bad, but it certainly is nothing to write home about – or to press release over.

But it’s not just Univision and Multichannel News that are off target here. Over the past few weeks there have been numerous other mysterious web video numbers bandied about, with little or no analysis or skepticism in any of the reporting.

Over at CNet, Yahoo called its show “Prime Time in No Time” “the most watched original show in the history of the internet”, claiming 280 million streams in the 20 months or so since it launched last March. I guess Yahoo (and Cnet) have never heard of Fred, Machinima or Smosh, 3 of the 17 YouTube channels – akin to shows in YouTube verbiage – that have each delivered more than 280 million views since they launched.

But wait, there’s more! Internet news site Mashable rolled out a “top 10 most watched” list with partner Visible Measures, claiming to show the most watched web series for September 2009. The numbers are impressive, with Fred coming in at number one with almost 21.5 million views, and Smosh with 13 million. How exactly are those views counted though? The Mashable reporter didn’t know, but was nice enough to introduce me to Matt Cutler, VP for marketing and analytics at Visible Measures. His response:

“For the charts we publish with partners like Mashable, we’re using publicly sourced data that is self-reported by the 150+ video sharing destinations that we cover with our Viral Reach Database.”

But just how realistic are all these “self-reported” views? Visible Measures follows the IAB’s standard reporting guidelines in its own internal metrics, which logs a view after only a paltry 3 seconds of watching. But those “self-reported views” from just about everyone else out there are far more generous.

According to a study from video aggregator TubeMogul, nearly every site – including Yahoo and YouTube – count a “play start” as a view, even if you only watch for a fraction of a second. And what happens if the same person stops, then restarts a video – because of connection or buffering issue? Nearly everyone counts that as yet another view, further spiking the numbers. And what about AutoPlay – where a video starts to play when you load a webpage, even if you didn’t ask for it? Those are routinely considered views as well, both on video sharing sites and on social networking services.

Take the Slide Funspace application for example, one of the top add-ins to Facebook. When a Facebook users loads up the application, a video starts playing automatically. During my last visit, episode five of what was recently touted as “Facebook’s First Hit Series” started playing immediately, without me asking for it.

Is that a view? Unfortunately, according to the currently accepted state of video measurement on the internet, the answer is “yes”. But should it be? I think not. It would be like channel surfing past “ESPN 8” on the way to Monday Night Football, and having Nielsen count you as a viewer of the Dodgeball Championship on “The Ocho”.

I don’t mean to disparage the programs I’ve called out. Most of them are very entertaining, creative and enjoyable to watch. But to call any of them a monster hit based on what appears be at least some inadvertent, or drive-by viewership seems a bit disingenuous. Or at least, as Dan Brekke, one of the best news editors I’ve worked with used to say, it’s “an opportunity for investigation.”

So if the reporters from Multichannel News, CNet, Mashable and MediaWeek won’t do the digging here, you’ll have to. Before signing off on an internet video campaign, make sure you get the answers to the following questions:

  • How do you count views? Find out whether they count, or discount, autoplay views. Also ask how long someone has to watch before a view is counted as a view. For many, it’s simply a play start, other follow the IAB’s 3 second rule. These numbers are very important, especially because another recent study from TubeMogul found that more than 50% of online video viewers clicked away within a minute. Engagement matters, and three seconds does not an engaged experience make!
  • How about multiple views from the same user? This is also a big deal, particularly for those unscrupulous video producers trying to game the system. According to Tubemogul, “it is common knowledge.. that YouTube caps views at 200 per IP address”. That means someone can hit play on a video 200 times, and log 200 unique views of a video. Multiply that by just a few users, and you have the online video version of “click fraud”.
  • How many views do you get for each episode? Make sure you get a per-episode number, rather than an average for all episodes. Most scripted episodic series have a huge open, but subsequent episodes can tail off dramatically.
  • Is viewership growing, shrinking, or steady? A mature internet video show with a committed audience should have a consistent per-episode viewership number. If it’s all over the map, or declining, it’s a sign of either artificially enhanced viewership, or a drive-by, non committed audience. Results are better when the audience is committed.
  • How do you count unique viewers? It’s very difficult on the internet, especially in a hyper-distributed world, to figure out exactly how many unique viewers watch a group of episodes. Find out where those unique viewer numbers come from: are they unique web-page visitors for show and episode pages, actual unique viewers of all episodes, or something else?
  • Where do the views come from? It’s important to know how many of those views happen via a producer’s website, versus distribution partners like YouTube and Metacafe. Sure, you can build engaging, repeat audiences on those platforms, but typically your most enthusiastic audiences will gravitate to the show’s homebase.
  • Do you pay for any views, or are they all organic? It’s easy to buy video views, especially if you count autoplay, below the fold, three second experiences as a view. Some marketing is obviously preferred, but if more than 10% or so are purchased, that’s definitely a red flag.

Jim Louderback is CEO of internet video network Revision3. For more details on these issues, you can reach him at jim@revision3.com, or follow him on twitter – @jlouderb

Windows 7 – It’s Vista All Over Again

“There you go again”. The Gipper said it in 1982, and I’m saying it today – but about Windows 7, not Jimmy Carter.

Because the more I play with Windows 7, the more I see the Vista debacle unfolding all over again. The commonly accepted wisdom is that Windows 7 is oh-so-much-better than Vista. Well, based on my own extensive testing, it’s not. Not at all.

First a bit of history. Back in 2006 I was editor-in-chief of PC Magazine. Vista was coming out and we were pretty darn laudatory. Microsoft provided us with new hardware, we tested beta versions of Vista, and we loved it. Shortly after it shipped, alas, the Wow was less Now than Ow. Vista sucked upon release to the world for a wide range of reasons – not least because the networking and audio driver models were completely rebuilt in the six months prior to release. That led to driver problems, along with general instability. When I left PC Magazine in 2007, my parting column was a bit of an apology – we’d been too easy on what turned out to be one of Microsoft’s more uneven efforts.

It’s easy to get snowed. Microsoft provides its favored reviewers a steady stream of highlights, new versions, and new features – along with brand new hardware to run the new builds upon. A team of technical marketers inside the borg stand at the ready – helping the anointed work through, and around, any problems that develop during testing.

I was definitely MFN last time around – but this time I’m less than a pimple on Microsoft’s ass. As full-time CEO, and only part-time and casual geek, they could care less about what I think about Windows 7. And surprisingly, that’s become truly liberating. Because I got a chance to evaluate the new OS not based on how MSFT wanted me to see it, but how it really is.

Over the past two months, I’ve been testing the Win7 release candidate not on brand new hardware, nor on the free systems Microsoft has been providing to its favored reviewers. Instead, I’ve suffered through trying to upgrade a wide variety of systems that are a lot more like what you’re probably running – 1-3 year old notebooks and desktops. And what I’ve found is sharply different from the overweening bootlicking being spewed by most reviewers.

I don’t fault them – well, not too much. They’ve been running Windows 7 in a best-case environment, and I’ve been running it in the worst. They have access to a near-limitless supply of new computers, new notebooks and new peripherals from vendors eager to ride the expected coattails of Microsoft’s triumphant release. I’ve been relegated to testing Windows 7 on the old systems that you and I are still running.

They love it. I’m not so sure. I’ve installed windows 7 on 8 different machines – a mix of notebooks and desktops – and I’ve downgraded all but two of them. Why? Because despite the hype, it worked more slowly, crashed more often, and just flat out didn’t work right.

So I’m here to tell you that Windows 7 is definitely a step forward – but not for many existing computers. You may not want to hear this, but Vista Service Pack 2 – the current upgraded version – is actually better, in many cases, than Windows 7.

If you’re buying a new system, you’re probably better with Windows 7. There are some annoying interface glitches, but overall you’ll probably be happier. But for the vast majority of Vista users – those that have upgraded to SP2, and have a relatively stable environment – you’re much better off with Vista. My advice: don’t upgrade. The path is likely to lead to frustration, pain and long nights fighting with drivers, displays and other configuration nightmares. Here’s an in depth look at what I found during my extensive testing, and how Windows 7 proved generally unacceptable to the carefully crafted Vista-based world I live in today.

 

INTERFACE CHANGES

Bad ComputerWindows 7 obviously suffers from Mac envy. A lot of the newly adopted conventions are build atop long-time Macintosh capabilities. But that doesn’t make them right. For the vast majority of Windows users that have never played with a Macintosh, the new conventions will be curious at best, and bewildering at worst.

Take the start menu and task bar. Mac-faithful have lauded the new “jump lists”, which let you see a pop-up list of most recently used files in a right-side pull up list. Google’s Chrome browser, for example, makes good use of this to expose pages you’ve most recently visited. But the vast majority of today’s applications can’t begin to support this feature. And that legacy unfortunately makes the taskbar changes – which eventually should be positive – into a mishmash of competing and inconsistent behaviors.

Consistency. We crave it as kids, and expect it as adults – at least in our operating systems. Click on an icon, and it should to the same thing today, tomorrow, next week and next year. And that’s what makes the changes to the Windows taskbar so frustrating. Let’s say you open a bunch of browser windows in IE, or documents in Word. Click on the Vista-based taskbar logo, and you’ll see a LIFO list of opened windows, with the most recent item at the top of the list. In computer terms, a LIFO stack, where the most recent sits at the top of the stack, the oldest at the bottom. Logical, and after years of windows usage, what we all expect.

Oh not with Windows 7. Instead, you get two entirely different representations of opened application instantiations. The first, very similar to Vista, simply stacks the windows atop each other vertically. But inexplicably, the most recently opened file or page is at the BOTTOM of the stacked list, not the top. WTF? Why change from FIFO (first in first out – with the last opened on the top of the stacked list) to LIFO (Last in First Out – with the most recent on the bottom)?

Oh, and it gets worse. Sometimes, when you click on a taskbar icon, you get a vertical list of the latest opened documents in reverse LIFO order. Other times, inexplicably, you get a horizontal display of document thumbnails that give you a window into those opened files. That would be all well and good – except its far too difficult to actually bring up any of those open windows. Navigating up or down a stack is far easier than right to left – especially when I often found myself selecting a thumbnail with no apparent effect at all.

Anyone who regularly moves from Vista to Windows 7 will find themselves disoriented, confused and frustrated by the convention change. Because inconsistency in operating systems – just as with abusive parents – is not something we’re readily able to deal with as a species. Doing it the wrong way – but doing it that way all the time – is far preferable to what seems like a random implementation that changes based on rules we cannot comprehend.

I’m sure there’s a rational, logical reason for why Windows moved from LIFO to FIFO stacks, and why they move from vertical stacks to horizontal thumbnails. But alas, I didn’t’ get invited to the special analyst briefings, so like everyone else in computerland, I’m forced to muddle through on my own. And I just don’t get it –even after months of using Windows 7. And if I’m frustrated and confused, chances are you will be too.

Here’s my uninformed answer as to why so many dumb changes were implemented. Some PhD interface god convinced TPTB that LIFO, horizontal lists, and so much more were more intuitive than FIFO, and the status quo. But guess what? The conventions I’m already used to are guaranteed to be more intuitive than anything you change. And that’s a theme that pervades Windows 7. They changed to ape OSX, or to hew to someone’s academic usability beliefs – without realizing that hundreds of millions of Windows users already have a habitual use case in place. This, unfortunately, is a theme of windows7. Arguably poor interface conventions were changed to a more preferred version – with little thought to how familiarity trumps even the most fashionable user interface theories.

There are a wide range of other UI elements that you may find useful, but I found distracting. One of the most praised – the ability to mazimize a window by dragging it to the top of the screen, or minimize it by dragging it down, proved irritating and relatively useless in my tests. I like hauling Windows around to different parts of my screen, to cut and paste, or keep real-time apps open. Invariably Windows 7 would maximize my IM window, or twitter client, when all I wanted to do was safely tuck it out of the way.

Sure, in a year or two, it’ll all seem perfectly lovely and normal.   But for now, it’s a lot to unlearn, and a lot to figure out.

 

NEW FEATURES

I was really looking forward to the new HomeGroup feature. It promised to let home users easily share files, music and more among computers on a network. Let’s face it, networking on Windows has been abysmal, whether you’re running XP, Vista, 3.1 or the Lan Manager NOS that underpins it all. HomeGroup promises to wipe away all those problems and easily let you share among peer systems on the same network.

Unfortunately it didn’t always work consistently among my Windows 7 machines, and it doesn’t work at all with Vista or even Microsoft’s own Windows Home Server. I often found machines that were previously linked to a home group suddenly become orphans – unable to connect to another Windows 7 PC sitting right next to it on the desk.

Nice concept. But until it works consistently, and until Microsoft deigns to bring Vista, XP and Windows Home Server into its HomeGroup, this feature is more trouble than it’s worth.

And speaking of the excellent Windows Home Server, why doesn’t it completely support Windows 7 today? Microsoft is promising true integration with the upcoming Service Pack 3, but it’s still not out – and according to Microsoft it won’t be until year end. Without that support, Windows 7 just isn’t ready for my house, and probably not for yours too.

 

SYSTEM BY SYSTEM RESULTS

So what went wrong? Here’s a system by system list of the 7 computers I tested, and whether Windows 7 is still running.

 

clip_image003Toshiba Portege R400: This tablet PC was designed for Vista, and shipped right around when Vista did. Featuring a convertible, writable screen, it also had a tiny OLED display on the front, which tracked emails and other system messages even when the system was asleep. Windows 7 installed well, but there were a few problems. First, the system converts from landscape to portrait in tablet mode, depending on how you hold it – that function didn’t work in Windows 7. I couldn’t get the OLED display to work right. And the machine was just sluggish, even with 3 gigs of RAM. Plus Toshiba didn’t have any windows7 drivers available on their site. VERDICT: DOWNGRADED

clip_image005Lenovo T400s: This was actually the newest device I tested. The upgrade to Windows 7 went fine, although Lenovo’s site lacked windows7 driver support, and I couldn’t get one, key feature to work – the built-in EVDO card. Although many kind users had posted work-arounds, I spent fruitless hours trying to implement them. In the end, the lack of Windows 7 drivers in general, and specifically for EVDO, doomed Win7. VERDICT: DOWNGRADED

clip_image007Dell XPS 1330: This 18 month old system upgraded to Windows 7 easily. However, after using it for a week or so, the machine inexplicably went belly-up, and ceased booting altogether. Dell called it a complete loss, and advised me to junk the machine. Spurious correlation? Did windows 7 kill my machine? Probably not. But still, you have to wonder. VERDICT: DEAD AND BURIED

 

clip_image009Dell Studio Hybrid: Essentially a notebook computer in a desktop package, again the upgrade was quick and easy. And despite a curious inability to sleep regularly, Windows 7 is performing well. VERDICT: SUCCESS

 

 

clip_image011Home Theater PC, based on ASUS M3A78-EMH HDMI: I used this year old motherboard to build a home theater PC, with dual USB-based ATSC tuners to let me record over the air HD, along with serving up music and photos. This was a brand-new installation, and I started with a clean Windows 7 64-bit installation. Alas, nothing went right. Only one of my four ATSC tuners were even supported by Windows 7, and that support was sporadic. ASUS had no drivers on its website for Windows7, which meant that I had to jump through hoops to upgrade the BIOS. And the system regularly, and inexplicably, crashed horribly with a Blue-Screen of Death. A terrible experience. I wiped it clean, loaded Vista Ultimate 64, and it’s been working like a champ since. VERDICT: DOWNGRADED

 

imageAsus Rampage II Republic of Gamers Motherboard: If anything should support Windows 7, I’d expect this relatively new motherboard, built around the X58 chipset, and with a super-fast Core i7 processor to work great. This was designed to be my video and audio-editing workstation, so I loaded it with memory and disk. I installed a clean version of 64-bit Windows 7, but I ran into the same problems here as with the Home Theater PC above. ASUS hasn’t provided any Windows 7 drivers, and the generic ones are full of bugs. The system regularly crashed with a Blue-Screen of Death. Ouch. Vista Ultimate runs great on it, by the way. VERDICT: DOWNGRADED

 

clip_image015MSI 975X Platinum Motherboard: This has been my workhorse PC for the last 2.5 years. I built it to run Vista – you can read all about that here. It runs Vista quite well, and now it runs Windows 7. The upgrade was pretty easy, even though ASUS Windows 7 drivers were unavailable, the stock Windows versions seem to work. And despite an occasional crash, and an odd tendency to startup in the middle of the night, things are going reasonably well. However, I can no longer use any of my ATSC HD cards to watch TV, and for some reason DirecTV’s DirecTV2PC program doesn’t work anymore either. But with a full-on plasma display right next to it, that’s not a big deal. I’d put Vista back on, but I figure I should have at least one Windows 7 machine I use regularly. VERDICT: PARTIAL SUCCESS

 

MAC WANNABEES

We’ve seen this story before. Vista was overhyped when it came out by everyone from PC Magazine to the Wall Street Journal. And now Windows 7 is getting the same treatment. One new wrinkle this time – most of the reviewers have embraced Apple’s Macintosh line, and instead of comparing Windows 7 to Vista – as most users would. Microsoft knows this, and they’ve added in a number of Mac-like features. That’s not necessarily bad, but it will mean some significant adjustment for most end-users. That, coupled with the driver, compatibility and upgrade issues I ran into, lead me to not recommending that users upgrade existing compuers from Vista to Windows 7 today. Things may change in six months or so, but for now Vista SP2 is simply a better product.

If you’re buying a new computer, definitely move to Windows7. But for everyone else, you’re better off staying pat, and spending that Benjamin on more memory instead.

Extend and Split HDMI for Under $100 – Digital Part 2

I’m amazed by how inexpensive everything HDMI has become – as long as you shy away from expensive Monster cables and Best Buy. I’ve just realized a long-time dream in building the perfect HD household – and it cost about 10% of what it would have a few years ago.

Here’s the problem – I have a DirecTV HD DVR in the family room, but I really wanted to push its signal all over the house. There are three here – but my wife has her own DVR (an older HD Tivo), while my son is content to graze on whatever has been recorded on either box – or via the Netflix-enabled Roku.

I’d already sent output from the component signal down to the mancave, via a set of component video baluns, where it is split up and serves both the Panasonic 42” plasma, and the 24” monitor in the garage (you can read more about that experience here).  The unit’s HDMI output serves the 52” Westinghouse LCD in the family room. But I wanted more. I needed another display in the kitchen.

Now I could have split up the component cable yet again, and run another set of baluns back up to the kitchen. But that would probably have cost more than $100, because I’d need to swap my 1:2 component switcher to a 1:4, and then get a pair of component baluns.

Even worse, the set I was trying to use had HDMI input only, no component in. So it was HDMI or nothing.

The good news: I’d run at least two segments of wire to each drop in my kitchen and elsewhere in the house . That proved prescient, as extending HDMI via unshielded twisted pair (aka UTP, Cat5e or Cat6) typically requires two sets of cables.

The bad news – or so I thought – it would cost nearly a thousand dollars for the baluns and an HDMI splitter. And yes, I could have easily spent that much. Gefen’s dual-cable HDMI extender costs $599 at their website, while their 1:2 splitter would set me back $289.

There’s no way I could afford that. But while searching for something else online, I discovered what looked to be the perfect product at an amazing price. The Arkview HDMI Gat-5E extender (no, that’s not a typo, the box really does say “Gat-5E”) promised to do everything that the more expensive Gefen version did – but for just $54. Wow. But I was still a bit stymied by the need to split my HDMI signal. I wasn’t about to use one of those unpowered solutions – sure they cost just a few bucks, but they would most likely degrade my signal, and cause big problems.

Monoprice to the Rescue: But then I stopped by one of my favorite sites, Monoprice, to see whether they could help. And amazingly, they had a powered 1×2 HDMI Splitter in stock for just $22!

So I took a closer look at both. Each claimed to fully support HDCP version 1.2, which meant I’d be able to split and transmit protected content. And each claimed to support HDMI 1.3. The Arkview also said it would push a 1080p signal up to 100 feet over Cat5e, and even longer for 1080i or 720p – and up to 200 feet for a 480p signal. High grade Cat6 cable could go even longer.

So I took the plunge. I ordered each one, and eagerly watched the front porch for their arrival. Speaking of which, special props for Monoprice. I ordered on a Saturday, and the overnight shipping was actually cheapest – $4.73 – and it arrived at my house on Monday afternoon. WOW. It even came in a cool Monoprice cardboard box, but that’s another story.

The Arkview showed up a few days later, and it took me all of about 10 minutes to set up. I was a bit concerned, because my cable plant doesn’t use a single type of cable. Cat 6 runs from the family room to the structured wiring rack in the garage, while older Cat5e connects the kitchen to the rack. I used a fairly old set of patch cables to bridge between the two runs – and to connect the splitters to the wall jacks. I’m assuming they were some type of Cat5, but I had no idea what. I figured that if I ran into problems I could always crimp up six short Cat6 cables.

Overall, according to my Fluke cable tester, my run was 113 feet from input balun to output balun. Those 113 feet traversed five separate cables – three jumpers, and two long runs, along with four jacks. But apparently the tolerances were good, and my crimping skills strong, because everything worked just fine the first time. The splitter split, the baluns balanced and unbalanced, and the TV received a 1080i signal just fine. I was pleasantly surprised.

Sure, you can spend $800 on expensive gear, but you can spend less than $80 and get similar results – at least according to my tests. That’s bad news for Gefen, but the company does keep innovating. They just released a single-cable HDMI extender that also transmits Infrared, which lets you use your TV or DVR remote at the destination site as well. That’s not an issue for me, as the DirecTV DVR includes an RF remote that works fine all around the house, but IR might be important to you. If so, there’s an X10 version that works great – and costs just $40.

Too bad for Gefen – as its high priced solutions are no longer needed. But great news for us. Because you can now move HDMI around the house cheaply and easily!

Wiring up the House with Baluns – The Analog Part 1

(I wrote this a few years ago, but it never got posted.  I’m putting it up now, as it’s a precursor to the HDMI piece I just wrote, which will be up right after this)

HDTV is digital crack. Buy one set, and within a year you’ll have two or three. Or like me, in a frenzy of spending, I replaced all my tubes with flat screens.
But what to run on them? After buying the sets, and then spending another $800 on a high definition TiVo, I wasn’t about to buy even more high-def set top boxes. And since we really only watch one HD stream at a time (SpongeBob, Dr. Phil and Oprah are just fine in SD – although stretching Phil and Oprah 16:9 adds unneeded girth to each), it seemed fiscally prudent to figure out a way to distribute output from one HD TiVo to three flat screens simultaneously. And I needed to get it all running by the Super Bowl – an artificial deadline, but one that helped focus my choices.

The first problem was how to turn a single HD source into multiple copies. Unlike standard TiVos, which output two video signals simultaneously, the HD TiVo delivers either a single digital HDMI or an analog component stream at a time. That meant I needed a way to split either the DVI or HDMI signal into three separate streams – while preserving any HDCP copy protection that might be required. I picked up one of Gefen’s HDMI splitters, which start at close to $300 for a one into two version. That was marginally within the budget, but I ran into problems trying to extend that signal around the house (more on that later).

I ended up buying the “Vopex HAD-2” component video splitter from Video Products Inc (VPI) for just $90. I could have purchased a similar four port splitter for $160, but instead took advantage of a nifty TiVo loophole.

Although the TiVo only puts out one video stream at a time, it will switch automatically. Pull the HDMI cable, and the HD signal automatically gets routed to the component ports instead. With some sets – including my industrial-grade Panasonic plasma – you can simulate the cable pull simply by turning the set off – but not all sets work this way.

That let me watch HD video on either the plasma, or simultaneously on the two LCD TVs upstairs – which was fine – I could share the signal simply by turning the plasma off, but still be able to watch the same game upstairs and downstairs without missing a play.

My setup would have been finished right then, if all the sets were next to each other. But at my house I’ve stashed the TiVo in the garage and the 42” plasma sits six feet away, just inside the garage door. But the other two LCD TVs are upstairs, one in the playroom and another in the kitchen. Standard component or HDMI cables won’t reach – even if I wanted to open up walls and snake them through the studs.
I considered and rejected wireless transmission options – nothing was available when I began the project. Similarly, although power-line HDTV distribution schemes are on the way, none were available in time for the Pittsburgh/Seattle battle.

I could have used cable TV wire but that would have been tricky. And that’s when I stumbled on the video baluns from Intelix. These baluns convert an UNbalanced digital or analog signal into a BALanced one that will run over standard cat 5e or cat 6 wiring – the type used for standard ethernet – and then back again. I’d conveniently wired my home with Cat 5e two years ago, and it all terminated within spitting distance of the TiVo. These baluns were the way to go.

Intelix makes HDMI baluns that work great – they support HDMI, and operate up to 150 feet. Alas, they require two Cat 5 cable runs for each HDMI or DVI signal. And one of them needs to be a special shielded Cat 5 cable – unlike the unshielded variety commonly used.

That was one problem, but the second – price – killed the deal. Intelix charges almost $600 for their digital video baluns. Add the cost of the Gefen HDMI splitter and I was looking at almost a thousand dollars to send just one digital signal from point A to point B – more than I’d spent on the HD TiVo to begin with.

The component video story, luckily, was more sanguine. Intelix’ component video baluns – which also transmit digital audio – cost well under $200 for the pair. Even better, only a single unshielded Cat 5 cable was required. So for well under $300, I was in business. I know purists prefer the digital signal, but I’m cheap – and the LCD TVs were too. Clearly analog was the way to go. So I extended the component signal from the TiVo in the garage to the playroom upstairs via the baluns, and now I could watch the same TiVo upstairs or down, depending on whether the plasma was on or off.
But what about the splitter? My kitchen LCD TV sits just a few feet – and a wall – away from the playroom set. So I connected the VPI component splitter to the output of the Intelix Balun, and then routed one set of cables to the playroom LCD TV, and another to the one in the kitchen. That meant opening up the walls, sliding a five-headed component cable through the walls, and then adding a simple junction box on each end and some spackle and paint to patch things up. Since I was inside the walls anyway, I spliced a power cable through too, to clean up the wall-mounted kitchen LCD installation. Easier said than done, but when I was finished my garage-based TiVo was pushing video onto two LCD TVs simultaneously.

But not audio. Another problem reared its head. The TiVo pumps out digital audio via an optical SP/DIF connector. The Intelix baluns transmit digital audio, but the coax version. But neither of my LCD TVs support digital audio – they demanded analog audio via the old, two channel, standard Red and White RCA connectors.

I first needed an optical digital audio splitter, to run that digital audio both to the home-theater receiver in the garage (connected to speakers that straddled the Plasma) and to the Intelix balun for upstairs listening. I then needed an optical to coax digital audio converter. I picked up each for about $20 from a shop on Yahoo. That gave me coax-based digital audio upstairs, but no way to convert it to analog two channel – except by purchasing an expensive home-theater receiver.
And here’s where the entire project almost ground to a halt. I really didn’t want to invest in another bulky audio receiver simply to convert digital audio to two channel analog. And try as I might, I couldn’t find an inexpensive, simple converter online or at Radio Shack that would fill the bill.

But here’s where the ghost of technology purchases past saved me. Years ago, back when the baby had trouble sleeping, I’d picked up a home-theater grade headphone system from Sony. The base unit ingested digital audio, delivered it to great sounding headphones via infrared, but also included a quarter-inch headphone jack for old-style headphones. I’d stopped using it, but kept it around anyway. And that’s what saved me! I picked up a coax to optical converter (the reverse of what I used downstairs) to mate the Intelix Balun to the headphone jack. From there I ran a quarter inch to RCA cable from the headphone amp to the Component splitter – which conveniently splits digital and analog audio signals too.
That did the trick – I could now listen and watch the same HD TiVo upstairs and downstairs, and on two LCDs simultaneously as well.

But what about controlling the TiVo box? How would I extend the TiVo remote from room to room and into the garage? That part was easy. I’ve been using pyramid-shaped IR extenders from Radio Shack for years with good results. These convert IR into radio, and then back into IR, across long distances. Even better, they use the same frequency, which means I could mate three transmitters to one receiver. So I put one in the kitchen, one in the family room, and one above the plasma downstairs, and positioned the receiving unit a few feet from the TiVo. That let me use the same remote in any room to control the box. Voila, my project was done.

Was it worth it? Overall I spent close to the cost of another HD TiVo. But I’d need two more to support three sets, and then I’d run into the synchronization problem – the show I want to watch would be downstairs, and I’d be upstairs, and I’d be unable to watch one sporting event or movie as I moved from upstairs to down without considerable manual fast forwarding. So I think so, yes.

Is it legal? [[need some read here from someone, along with perhaps DirecTV]]

Want do it yourself? Here are a few things to consider. First, my setup will work with any device that pumps out component video – although don’t expect the HDMI / component switch trick to work. For two TVs it’s easy, as long as you have cat 5 cable running through your house. Want to push content to more than two? Get a one to four component splitter (for $160) and multiple pairs of component baluns at $160 for a set. Alternately if the sets are nearby, you may be able to daisy chain the 1:2 splitter I used – but I didn’t test that.

The biggest problem was digital audio – it’s unlikely you’ll have a spare headphone amp sitting around like I did. If you’re lucky, your set will ingest digital audio and convert it to analog – or you’ll already have a home theater receiver that inputs digital audio next to each HDTV. I could have transmitted analog audio from the TiVo using yet another set of Intelix baluns – and another dedicated Cat 5 cable. There are decent wireless audio transmission products on the market, including Oregon Scientific’s iBall, but those can get pricey quickly. Let me know if you’ve uncovered a cheap digital to analog converter, and we’ll print your letter, and update this story on our website.

If you don’t have Cat 5e or Cat 6 cable running around the house, the price can rise dramatically, as you open up walls and run cable. We’ll be adding some of the upcoming wireless and power-line HDTV distribution products into the mix, to see how they work – and we’ll bring you the results here.

Product List;

HD TiVo

Intelix Component Baluns

VPI 1:2 component splitter

Optical SP/DIF splitter

Optical -> Coax audio adapter

Coax -> Optical audio adapter

Cat 5e cable

Sony Optical SP/DIF to analog audio converter headphone amp (check ebay pricing)

IR Extender Pair:

(2) Extra IR extender transmitters

Other products you can use

Gefen 1:2 HDMI splitter

1:4 Component splitter

Intelix HDMI Baluns