Unless you are one of the 4.7% of the population that doesn’t own a television, the chances are that video entertainment plays at least some part in your daily life. Viewers in the UK spend a significant amount of their free time each week – roughly 23 hours – watching television content, making it an incredibly important element within the home. 

Yet these robust overall audience figures mask a sizeable shift in the way we consume video content. Almost half of all viewers now subscribe and watch at least some content through a TV streaming service like Netflix, while there is a growing trend towards ‘record now, watch later’ viewing (up 13.2% from 2014-15), particularly in homes in London and the South East of England.

When coupled with a growing number of content providers and an increasing preference towards watching TV on tablets or laptops among younger viewers, a perfect storm emerges where a family home will likely require a complex mix of technology to satisfy the viewing habits of each member of the household. While it is perfectly possible to retrofit such a solution, if a property can be set up during the building process to accommodate different video sources, then this will save homeowners considerable headaches at a later date.

 

How do we watch television in 2016?

 

Traditionally, all you needed to get your viewing experience going was a TV set, an aerial and a reasonable amount of patience to get the antennae facing in the right direction for a steady signal. While terrestrial television remains readily available across the country (and to this day still comprises the most-watched channels), there are now several other options for delivering video content into the home.

The most commonly known ways of accessing video content in the UK are through a set-top box (receiver) and either a satellite dish (Sky and Freesat) or a cable connection (Virgin Media). These tend to be bundled up with a broadband and phone line, which ties the customer into a contract with a single service provider. One common element that both of these signal types share is that they need to be decoded, either by units built into the televisions themselves or using a receiver.

Yet this isn’t the whole picture, as not everything we watch will be delivered via these channels. Internet-based television has gone from being largely confined to our computers to a major means of accessing programmes around the house, across devices. This not only includes IPTV services such as BT TV or Amazon Fire, but also online streaming platforms such as Netflix, Now TV or iPlayer. These latter platforms can be accessed via a number of means, including through dedicated media players such as Apple TV, Roku or a Chromecast device. This means that your television needs to be connected to your home’s internet, preferably via CatX cable, in order to enable this type of content.

Even established channels are evolving in line with viewers’ tastes. Virgin and Sky now both offer ‘second screen’ apps – Virgin Anywhere and Sky Go – which allow customers to watch both live and on-demand content from a tablet, phone or laptop. The former offers both a web-based browser and an app, although the app is only available for those that elect for a TiVo box.

For Virgin customers that do elect for TiVo, however, there is a repository for both their cable and streaming content in a unified interface. While Sky does not offer this, it has built up a significant library of content – entertainment, sport, films etc. – which it offers as part of its boxsets or on-demand offering. With its latest offering – Sky Q – viewers can also record up to four shows to catch up with later while watching a fifth. Users can also pause content in one room and then start it again from the same point in another part of the house at a later date.

If a homeowner plans to watch DVDs or Blu-ray discs, then this obviously adds another layer to the video mix. A standard player will either be needed in each room in which films are to be watched, or a more elaborate system such as the Kaleidescape Terra movie server could be used to store and play movies around the house, which can then be delivered to multiple locations.

 

An invisible network

 

Broken down to its basics, the technology behind a video system falls into three categories: sources, displays and the transmission or distribution system. The first two are fairly self-explanatory: a source is used to output video content as an electrical signal, while a display is the medium through which the image is shown or projected.

The latter is the physical infrastructure over which the signal travels from the source to the display. While this can be as simple as a cable running between the two, in set-ups with multiple sources or displays this will inevitably include several linked devices, including amplifiers, splitters and matrices.

In a connected home all incoming sources will be distributed from a central point known as the Low Voltage Head End (LVHE). This allows each room to be wired back to it it and gives you much greater flexibility for accessing video sources across multiple displays, as well as meaning the property is future-ready for any future expansion of the property’s video services.

 

Distribution considerations

 

While there are a number of ways that a home can be set up to meet the television needs of the homeowner, there are a few key elements that should be taken into account at an early stage of the design process. The sources that the homeowner wishes to use will have a fundamental effect on how the house needs to be wired and will require different amounts of space in various areas of the home to accommodate them.

 

Scenario One: Simple and ineffective

  Connected Lifestyle AV smart home 01 A common set-up in many homes that lack significant technological infrastructure is to simply run an aerial into an amplifier and send a cable to each television in the property. A Sky or Freesat satellite can connect with four coaxial cables, with two needed per set-top box (one for watching, one for recording). In this case, if you want to watch Sky in two rooms, you’ll need to run cables directly into two separate boxes. While this type of arrangement is a frequent occurrence, this is a labour-intensive, cumbersome set-up that requires each source to be wired to each television all of the way from the point of entry.

While it is not advisable to elect for this set-up for all but the smallest properties, its weaknesses will be particularly acute for larger residences where significant amounts of cabling will need to be run. Additionally, this set-up will only allow up to two displays to play satellite content (or four if you are not recording and watching).

For nearly all properties, it makes a lot more sense to star wire i.e. send all sources to a single hub and then distribute it around the house.

Scenario Two: multiple sources into multiple displays Connected Lifestyle AV smart home 02Once you are sending multiple signals down into different rooms, a more intelligent distribution system is a must. When dealing with terrestrial, satellite and IP platforms, it becomes useful to feed all of the sources through a matrix switcher. In this scenario, the user simply picks which source they wish to view and the matrix switches across to the correct source and sends data through a CatX data cable to the television via a baluns transformer to convert the signal.

This approach can bring a number of significant benefits. Design-wise, it is much easier to manage, as it requires less local cabling around each display and, as it uses CatX cables, negates the usual wiring length length limitations. Thermal management also becomes more simple, as all AV devices can be stored and managed in a central location rather than in multiple areas across the property.

The end user also reaps substantial benefits, as less individual subscriptions are needed for this approach, for example, a single satellite subscription could be shared between as many screens as desired. This also allows a user to watch wherever they like, including pausing content in one room and starting again from the same point in the program from elsewhere.

In the above example, the LVHE plays a crucial part in pulling each video element together and sending it around the house. While this unit could be stored in a cupboard, it will usually sit in a dedicated server room, along with servers, receivers and other hardware that the homeowner does not need to access on a regular basis. As well as power, both space and ventilation can become an issue if not planned properly beforehand.

A home systems expert will be able to advise on how best to organise a video distribution system for a particular property, advising on what needs to be done to not only create a streamlined system with minimal cabling and peripherals, but also a clear means for various members of the household to be able to watch television however they want, whenever they want.

 

Vocabulary

 

Amplifier

This enhances a signal, allowing it to be sent to multiple points.

Balun

This is a transformer that connects an unbalanced circuit to a balanced one. It has an HDMI port on one side, and a CatX port on the other.

Coaxial

Shielded cable that carries low voltage signals, such as cable TV, digital audio and radio frequency information.

CatX

A Cat5e or Cat6 wire, the type used to connect a computer to a router.

HDMI

Cables for transferring uncompressed video data and compressed or uncompressed digital audio data

LVHE

The Low Voltage Head End is the central hub through which systems can be controlled and distributed.

LNB

A low-noise block downconverter (LNB) is the receiving device that is mounted on a satellite dish.

Matrix switcher

This device allows you to input several television sources and distribute them to multiple rooms throughout the property.

Receiver

Also known as a set-top box. The device that receives and decodes a satellite signal.