Are CDs a Thing of the Past?

It didn't take too many memberships to CD clubs to realize that my CD collection would get pretty unwielding pretty fast. Early on, I knew that every time I wanted to listen to a CD, it wasn't going to work to leave the room I'm in and hunt for the disc, only to be trapped into listening to only that album. I had friends buy 300-disc changers to solve this problem, but I wasn't all that happy with that solution either. Even if it gets all the discs queued up, it doesn't help me find the music I want, and it certainly doesn't easily facilitate taking my music with me to another room, let along out of the house.

Given that I had pretty thoroughly wired my house for a local area network, I was confident early on that whatever solution I implemented would include ripping my CD collection to MP3s. Most people have gotten this far. But then the question is begged, "Now what?" 

My First MP3 Player (not by Fisher Price)

My first attempt to answer this question was with an MP3 player network device (the "Audiotron" by Turtle Beach). This was basically a hardware device that introspected the ID tags (the metadata tags behind an MP3 that record the artist, album, track, genre, etc of the song) and creates a basic menuing / browsing mechanism in the device. So, I could hook the Audiotron up in my entertainment system in the family room, use its embedded web server to point it at a share somewhere on my network where a bunch of MP3s lived, wait for a few minutes while it built a catalog by scanning the share, flop on the couch and go to town with a handy IR remote included with the unit. And with relatively little trouble or expense, my stereo contains a network-enabled MP3 player component.

I was happy with this for a while, but it didn't solve my take-it-with-me requirements. I could play music in my office (through my PC's speakers, playing the MP3s through iTunes or equivalent) or I could play music in the family room (through my Audiotron), but in the bedroom or the random other room -- nothing. Not only that, but the Audiotron only played music. What about movies, photos, DVR functionality, etc. C'mon, man, I need integration!

Let's take a look at some other options? 

TiVo HomeMedia

TiVo is pretty much the leader in the digital video recorder space. Now, they've opened up the home media market as well with their new HomeMedia addition to the Series-2 TiVo. This software does the same thing my Audiotron did, but integrated with the oh-so-beautiful DVR functionality of TiVo. Works the same as the Audiotron in that you plug your TiVo to your home network, it scans the music on shares you make available, and it plays you your favorite music. And yes, they do photos too. 

Microsoft MediaCenter PC

Another option is from Microsoft. A couple years back, they introduced a new version of the Windows XP operating system that was only to be sold with specific PC hardware configurations to bring you yet another unit in your entertainment center. This PC / special O/S combination plays music (MP3s) just like you can on any old PC using Windows Media Player (WMP), but has a great new shell with which to do it. The "shell" is the screen you see when you interact with the TV. Where a normal Windows XP shell (you know, "Windows Explorer") is intended to be operated from 2 feet away with a keyboard and mouse, the MediaCenter shell is intended to be operated from 20 feet away with a remote control. And it looks (not surprisingly) like the TiVo shell. Go figure.

This box is everything Windows Media Player is and then some. Movies, music, photos, even a DVR functionality similar to TiVo. But I digress... 

The Distribution Problem

So, in my mind, all three of these options are better than a stack of CDs and an N-disc CD changer. TiVo and Media PC definitely beat the stand-alone boxes (like the Audiotron) for one-stop-shopping, but none of them has adequately addressed my desire to play music wherever I go in the house. TiVo claims to have this problem solved, but I haven't really messed with it. Anyone want to post your experiences on this front?

But, with the release of Microsoft Media Center 2005, Microsoft has a pretty slick solution to the distribution problem. Basically, you buy a 2005 Media Center PC and a set of "extender devices", one for each TV in the house. They communicate with each other over the home network and pretty much magically allow you to watch what you want where you want. And they're even building XBOX versions of both Media Center and the extenders, making this solution even more available. And the fact that you can buy extenders for about $65 a pop doesn't hurt either. The fancier wireless guys'll cost you more like $250. 

The Portability Problem

Okay, so I'm digging the MediaCenter, especially if I can integrate my XBOX. But what happens when I want my tunes to follow me outside the house? Now it's time to go portable.

The iPod is the clear leader here. It integrates with iTunes in the coolest of ways (a subject for another article), but it'll happily play MP3s that were ripped and are typically played by WMP. So, my solution is to use the MediaCenter at home and synch up a few hundred MP3s to my iPod, so I can treat it as a walkman. And there are even great options for plugging the little guy into your car stereo. Steven Jones has written a TechLore article on this topic here


So, summing up. Yes, I think CDs are pretty much history. Buy them, rip them to MP3s, slap them on a server, and distribute them ubiquitously with something like TiVo or Media Center. The iPod will even get them to your car or the coffee shop with you. Done. No shiny little disc required.


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