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Home Theater Basics: What's "Electronic Content?"

Grabbing music and video off the Internet probably isn't a new topic for you. But when you get right down to it, knowing a few high-level concepts about "electronic content" helps you understand what all the fuss is about.

Live your digital life intelligently by getting to know the following pointers:

  • File Encoding: Digital music and video files are encoded (converted to digital formats) using specific encoding formats. For audio, MP3 is most common, but there are many others out there, including Windows Media Audio (WMA), Advanced Audio Code (AAC), and Ogg Vorbis. Similarly, there are a number of video formats (like WMV and MPEG).
    The key point about the encoding format used for your audio or video is that whatever system you use for decoding that file to display it on your home theater must support the format you are using. For example, if your digital media adapter doesn't support Apple's encrypted AAC format, you won't be able to play music from the iTunes Music Store on your home theater system.
  • Streaming versus downloading: Not all audio or video is delivered in the same fashion. There are two predominant ways of sending the content — streaming and downloading.

Streaming video means that there is no local copy of the video on your device. It plays while it is delivered over your home network and/or the Internet. Most Internet connections aren't fast enough to play really high quality streaming video, so you find that many Internet movies are downloaded to your machine instead.

Downloaded video is delivered as a file to be stored inside your set-top box, Media Center PC, or other device, and then played back from that local storage. So while downloaded video can deliver a TV-like quality viewing experience, complete with the ability to fast forward, pause, rewind, and so on, you have to wait a while — usually up to an hour or more — for full-length movies to download.

  • Internet radio: Internet radio is exactly what it sounds like — radio stations broadcasting in a streaming fashion over the Internet. So if you're a college student and you miss your favorite radio station back home, you can still listen to it via streaming audio over the Internet.
  • Podcasts: Podcasts are the equivalent of downloaded Internet radio. They're files that contain audio (and, more and more, video) that often are packaged like daily newscasts or commentary. Podcasts are so named because they initially were targeted toward easy dissemination of content to iPod users.
  • Video search: Video search engines scour the Web and find content based on keywords and file formats and then make this available through some sort of on-screen interface. Google has perhaps the best-known search interface at Google but there are others, including Yahoo! and AltaVista. These search engines marry the best of non-X-rated amateur videos from the Web with the ability to buy videos of TV show series and movies, as well.
  • File sharing: File-sharing networks are networks set up for, not surprisingly, sharing files. In a very "free love" approach to content, early file-sharing networks adopted a "What's mine is yours, and vice versa" approach toward exchanging content. Basically, you were encouraged to make your music available to anyone who wanted it, and they would do the same with you. Napster, Grokster, and other early leaders in this space were taken to court by the music industry, proven to be in violation of Federal copyright laws in the United States, and shut down. Most of the large worldwide music-sharing services used peer-to-peer technologies.
  • Peer-to-peer: Peer-to-peer (P2P) is a concept often associated with music file sharing because it's the way most of the illegal music download services worked. Peer-to-peer simply means that you connect directly to other people's computers to download files instead of going to a central file server. Peer-to-peer networks operate without such central control and allow multiple users to share files at the same time — you'll often be downloading and uploading different "chunks" of a file to and from numerous folks at the same time.
  • Digital rights management (DRM): If you download a lot of iTunes songs, you've run into DRM restrictions when trying to load your songs to other devices. (Most portable music players — besides the iPod — simply can't play back iTunes Music Store downloads.) If you've ever tried to copy a DVD, you've encountered DRM.
    DRM exists for a reason: to protect the copyright interests of the music, movie, and other content owners. Managing who has rights to do what with which digital assets is a key function of any DRM system.
    The rules for sharing content are defined both technically and legally. You can do a lot of stuff technically — that does not make it legal. You can safely assume that the law says you can't copy anything unless you are told you explicitly can. You also can pretty much assume you cannot rebroadcast or retransmit the content in any way.
    Remember, part of sharing content is defined technically. In many instances, you can't record or copy content because there is special coding in the content itself that prevents you from doing this.
    Some of the music services will explicitly allow you to make one copy, or play the songs on up to five machines, or some such limitation. This will be part of your subscription contract and should be fairly obvious. For instance, if you download content from iTunes, you can house that content on up to five computers (and an unlimited number of iPods). Look for this when trying to decide which service to use.
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