I bought a Windows Vista Media Center Edition (VMCE)  Dell XPS 420 late last year to replace my aging  DIY  MCE that started life about three years ago.   The main difference between these two boxes was that the Dell came preconfigured with two outboard ATI CableCard  compatible HDTV tuners.  

I have been a proponent of MCE’s since it’s inception.   In theory it had everything a residential media consumer could want.   Integrated UI, integrated guide, integrated music, integrated photos, two (or more) tuners, IPTV, DVD movie storage, HDDVD/BluRay  compatibility and a robust development community  that could fill in  any blanks.   However what it did NOT have was compatibility with HDTV over cable.  

I lived with this limitation for a number of years but when I saw that Dell had entered the market with a CableCard ready 420, I had to find out if the dream of having it all in a single box was a reality.   After a number of miscues by Comcast I finally got the right combination of paired CableCard/tuner IDs and the right tech support.   The biggest problem was the lack of CableCard knowledge on Comcast’s side.   You can read about my installation experience here.   There are some good tips in that post if you ever find yourself in that position.

Once everything got authorized the system worked PERFECTLY.   I had dual tuner access to ALL of the 300+ Comcast channels and perfect HDTV reception, all up-scaled to 1080P direct to my LCD.   To make things more interesting, we have an Xbox360 in the Music/Game Room hooked up to a 720P DLP TV as part of the home network.   With a 1 min setup, the Xbox was now able to be used as a Media Center extender in full HD.   This meant that all of the content that was on the Dell in the family room was now available in the game room with the EXACT same UI.   Learning curve = 0.   A Vista MCE can handle up to five Extenders.   I have a Linksys DMA2100 on order for the MBR.  

The point I am making is that Comcast’s setup issues aside, this is a fully integrated, high quality,  HD home entertainment platform that took hardly any technical installation time and can distribute HD and SD content over a home network.   Other than power cables, the only hook up wires in the system was the HDMI to the LCD, RCA cables to the audio amplifier and sub woofer and five USB cables.   Two boxes, a few cables, and you are done.

At this point I do not know what anyone else could ask for in a residential  media installation.   So what is a residential integrator to do if there is not much to integrate in the future and everything becomes a commodity?   Here are some of my ideas:

  1. Put more focus on audio.   There is still a lot of margin, price points and quality stories to tell on the audio side.   Other than super high end VMCE products like Niveus , I could not tell you the difference between a CableCard ready VMCE made by Dell, HP, Sony…   In the IT market there is really no such thing as a high end computer.   At any given time they are all pretty much the same quality, feature set, and price point.
  2. Learn to live on lower margins now.   The commoditization of the residential market is coming.   Your only real asset is your time, experience,  and management ability.   The IT industry went through the same thing and they switched from a product centric model to a service model.     
  3. Make sure your business is running as efficiently as possible.   There will not be the same margins to save your from any mistakes.   You will need a process for all aspects of your business like contact management, proposal generation, design, changes, project management, and ordering.
  4. Focus on closing deals quicker.   Use available design tools to blow your local competition away and close the deal before they do.   The company that sold me my new HVAC system used this tactic very well.
  5. Figure out how to sell extended service contracts.   This is good for both you and your customer.
  6. Think about other products and services you can sell.   The days of racks of AV and control equipment for media rooms are drawing to a close.  
  7. Offer some sort of financing program.   Nothing helps close a deal like free financing for x months.

The reality is that the game will be changing as the market grows and what we used to think of as high end becomes a commodity.   This Does Not mean you will go out of business, but you will have to manage your business more efficiently if you want to stay in this industry.

Update 1/31/08: 

I just installed the Linksys DMA 2100 as mentioned above in the MBR over a wireless G network streaming HD and using component video.  It works OK but you can see network errors and the LCD TV video processing over the component video is pretty weak.  This weekend I am going to to run a cat 5 from my switch to the MBR and get a HDMI cable.

The hard wired cat 5 cable solved all of the network errors but the video was not cooperating over HDMI.  Actually it was not true HDMI because the TV Iw as hooking it up to just has DVI.  After some investigation it turns out that the Linksys DMA2100 attempts to auto sense the correct video resolution of the digital TV it is hooked up to.  If it can not sense correctly it look like it defaults to 480P.  I hooked up the extender to my main 47″ LCD with HDMI and it looked perfect at 1080P.  So I really can not blame the extender.  It really needs a HDMI input to work at its optimum.

In any case the functionality of the extender is perfect.  Dead silent and it effectively mimics the the main MCE UI.  I do not think it is possible to get this no compromise functionality with any other type of equipment.