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2014/02/22

You Don't Want Another Computer! On Dash-Top PCs, Set-Top PCs and Pocket Supercomputers

A decade ago, I started to get obsessed with the idea of hooking a computer to my car. I thought about storing and displaying diagnostic and status information, about storing music and podcasts, about having it handle navigation and all sorts of stuff. I hit the point where I considered the trade-off between storage media — solid state would be more survivable, but I could get literally hundreds of much bigger spinning hard drives for the cost of an SSD — and decided to keep it a mental exercise.

I'm certainly not the only one who considered putting computers in cars. And, eventually it became easy, because the iPhone came around, phones all had data and GPS, so the media and navigation parts of the equation were solved, and with Bluetooth and even 1/8" jacks, cars became stereos with four wheels. The only parts remaining are diagnostics and auto behavior modification. You can get the Garmin ecoRoute for $100 or a Bluetooth-talking ELM327 OBDII dongle for much less, plus many free apps for your phone. To my knowledge, chipping isn't dynamic yet — you can't remap your engine control unit's behavior on-the-fly — but I'm sure it's coming. Andy Greenberg wrote in Forbes about all the things two security researchers could do to pwn a Toyota Prius, and they were looking at capabilities, not attack vectors.

Point I'm trying to make is, for all my dreaming of putting a car into my computer, I now have one every time I sit down in my car, and even better, it comes back out every time I get out, so I don't have to worry about it when I go to the office, and it isn't locked in there if I have an accident. Things like Ford's Sync work best when they realize they're just an interface between your phone and your car.

(I now have an OBDII-to-USB cable and a Raspberry Pi, so I will have a computer in my car, but I'm going to explore the API and try to do more of the controlling-the-car things than a phone app would do. Certainly I'll still listen to podcasts while driving with my phone, not my Pi. I'll be sure to blog about it later.)

But I am not here to talk about car PCs.

I'm here to talk about home theater PCs.

I have one. It's an old HP that was handed down to me because it had connection issues I have never been able to replicate. The CMOS battery had died and corroded, too. Now it runs Windows 8.1 — will the indignities never end? — and I have it in my bedroom connected to the VGA port of my TV. I don't often use it, because when I start throwing pixels through the video card, the fan starts up and I have to turn it up to hear anything. I use it when I want to play with Windows 8, so not a lot.

When I want to consume media these days, I pull out my phone or tablet and point it at the Chromecast. More and more apps are coming — Google's opened the ChromeCast API — so the sweet spot between "essentially a wireless HDMI cable" and "smart thing that holds on to your credentials and streams you stuff" is being filled with more and more things.

I have a BluRay player. It comes with a wired ethernet jack in the back, and I have on occasion had it set up so I could use the networking portions, but when you're searching for YouTube videos or trying to type in passwords, the remote is a poor interface. Updates to YouTube's TV interface and others now bring up a URL you browse to that sets up the connection between your box and your account, but that's an update nobody ever pushed to my BluRay player; basically, once they make the next device, they don't care about the old one, so nothing cool is ever going to come back to my several-year-old player. This is what I fear is the fate of proprietary smart TV interfaces: the next cool thing in streaming apps will come next year, while I'll hold on to any TV I buy for several years, which means I'd have an ugly interface I hate for a decade after the company doesn't care.

We just got a Roku; I haven't even used it yet, and have only touched the remote once. It makes sense for the living room TV, which is old enough that it doesn't have an HDMI port. There is a Roku app for Android, so I'm sure I'll use it in a similar way to how I use the ChromeCast.

I saw a presentation recently that showed the older Google TV interface next to the Apple TV remote, arguing that every button in the full-keyboard-rethought-as-an-XBox-controller is a delayed design decision, and that the sparseness of the Apple TV is a selling point; I haven't used the Apple ecosystem, and I understand it's really slick, but trying to handle deep, full and varied content through such a limited interface. (Sophie Wong has a fuller discussion with photos of both remotes in a blog post.) The Roku's remote adds to that by having a hardware button to go directly to Blockbuster's app; Blockbuster is defunct and now there's a button always pointing to a dead thing. Software remotes like the Roku app should be easily updated to the sweet spot of usability.

When some people I know have tried the ChromeCast, they've objected, because they want a computer they control, not a second screen for their phone. I recognize that thinking, because really, that's what I was looking for in a car PC, before I realized that it isn't what I really want. Nothing built-in, as little smarts as I need to talk to it, and as much controllable from my phone as possible.

Do you have an argument for set-top boxes I haven't talked through? The only one I can think of is that content providers sometimes allow their content to be viewed in one forum and not others; the video to the left of Marina Shifrin telling her boss she quits through the art of interpretative dance is one of many that is cleared to be shown through TV only. As the use of phones for connectivity dwarfs the use of desktops and laptops, I'm sure that'll fall. If there's another argument, I'm game to engage it.