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A Closer Look at Ceton’s “Q” Entertainment Platform

Last week at CES 2012, Ceton gave press and bloggers a technology preview of a new entertainment platform they’ve been working on. Ceton is known for CableCARD tuners for HTPCs, and now they’ve developed a set top box of their own, a Media Center Extender, and a suite of mobile apps. While we posted about these products during CES , we thought we’d provide a more detailed examination of the platform. Note that all of these products’ monikers are code names.

The “Q”

Ceton’s “Q” is a DVR set-top box that packs tons of features into a nice, stackable form factor. Think Windows Media Center on steroids. But don’t call it that—OEMs building entertainment devices on Windows Embedded are quick to point out that it’s not Media Center. We won’t get into that debate here, but just know that it builds on everything that’s great about Media Center, and the experience is very, very similar.

As you might expect, the “Q” is a CableCARD box, and it’s designed to be your home media hub. The “Q” connects to your network through Ethernet or with a MoCa adaptor. With six tuners, a 2TB hard drive, and a slot-drive Blu-ray player, it’s easy to see how it could ably host and deliver content throughout the household.

The “Q” will come loaded with the features you’d expect in Media Center plus a number of extras. While you won’t be able to install your own add-ins like you might on a Media Center PC, Ceton’s talking about an API and marketplace that we’d imagine might show Microsoft how the Extras Gallery should have been done all along.

A Closer Look at Ceton’s “Q” Entertainment Platform
Ceton's custom skin persists throughout the interface

They’re also talking about content services—none in particular, but anything would be an improvement over Media Center, since Netflix and CinemaNow are really the only decent options there. More importantly, they plan to integrate an aggregated, universal search feature that will allow you to discover and access content across sources and providers [See Universal Search, below].

The “Q”’s interface comes stylized—skinned, if you will—and it’s customizable. You’ll be able to choose a look that best suits your tastes, including (thankfully) the standard blue aura we’ve all come to recognize.

Ceton says the device will support a wide range of media formats, which we hope means they’ll be including codecs for formats, like .mkv, that aren’t natively supported by Windows Media.

The “Echo”

A Closer Look at Ceton’s “Q” Entertainment Platform
The "Echo" has a nice, small form factor

Ceton describes the “Echo” as a next generation Media Center Extender. It’s been years since we’ve seen anyone offering extenders to the market, but this device finally gives Media Center households an alternative to the Xbox as a second-room device.

If you already run Media Center in your home, the sleek “Echo” box will deliver all the features you’d expect to see on any Media Center Extender. Paired with the “Q”, it takes on even greater functionality to support the additional capabilities of Ceton’s box, including the ability to customize the look and feel, independent of the appearance of the “Q”’s interface.

You could argue that the handful of first- and second-generation Media Center Extenders failed for two reasons: price and performance. Ceton claims to have addressed both of those problems. The “Echo” boxes we saw were very responsive, both as a Media Center Extender and when paired with the “Q”. As for price, we’ll have to wait and see, but Ceton states they’ll come to market with a “much more attractive price point.”

The “Q Companion”

With tablets and smart phones finding their way into many homes and living rooms, device manufacturers have learned that these second screens provide a rich opportunity for discovering, managing, and controlling media. Ceton plans to take full advantage of this, planning apps for Android, iOS, and Windows phones and tablets.

A Closer Look at Ceton’s “Q” Entertainment Platform
The "Q Companion" app lets you discover content visually

At their technology preview, Ceton showed prototype apps on Windows Phone and a Windows 8 tablet. They demonstrated features like browsing for movies and shows, searching for content, viewing detailed program information, scheduling recordings, managing your recording priorities, selecting content from online services, and watching movie trailers. Ceton intends to offer these features and more, including the ability to control TV playback.

The idea is that your mobile or tablet device allows you to manage your media hub without disturbing the on-screen experience. And certainly the benefits of using a keyboard and quickly perusing content visually is much more immersive and productive than fumbling through menus and lists with your remote. Outside the home, these apps will give you access to schedule recordings and manage your content remotely.

Universal Search

While add-ins for online content services offer access to vast media libraries, the fragmented experience that individual services’ apps create is frustrating and confusing to consumers. Which service has what content? WHO CARES and why should anyone care? This is a problem plaguing so-called smart TVs with apps, and it’s an issue I’ve personally claimed is one of the biggest issues facing TV usability today.

TiVo has the best provider-independent search and browse capability to date, but throw your own media into the mix—recorded shows and movies, music, and videos—and finding or discovering content gets even more convoluted. Nobody’s solved this problem. Until now.

Ceton plans to introduce a “universal search” solution that aggregates content across services and sources. Browsing and searching for content will yield results from everywhere—online, on TV, or on your set top box. You won’t have to know or care where the media resides. If it’s in your collection, in the program guide, or available through one of their online partners that you subscribe to, it will be included in the results. Select a video, and you’ll be watching it without opening any service’s app and or wading through their menus.

Later This Year

Ceton isn’t talking specifics about timing, price, or services, but they are saying we should expect to see these devices later this year. We often joke that “later this year” is CES code for next year, but we’re optimistic that that won’t be the case here.

From a hardware perspective, Ceton’s devices look pretty close to production ready. We noted that the main set top box lighting was too bright for a home theater environment, but that’s something they intend to correct. Overall, these devices are well-designed and solidly manufactured.

As for the software, they’ve set a very high bar for themselves. Their demos showcased a limited set of capabilities, but from the list of features they rattled off, there’s a whole lot of custom software they need to build and test. We’re talking about content applications, aggregation services, customization tools, and mobile apps for six different devices on three platforms. That’s a whole lot of software engineering!

The most likely candidate for the first product to market would be the “Echo” extender. Because it’s a full-blown Media Center Extender, it can stand on its own without the “Q” platform. Ceton already has retail distribution channels in place to get the product on shelves, both virtual and physical, and that could give them an opportunity to meet an immediate need for Media Center users who don’t want an Xbox in the bedroom.

The timing on the rest of the platform will likely depend on their engineering backlog, CableLabs certification (if necessary), and content partnership deals.

Whether you want to call this Media Center or not, one thing is certain: Ceton has demonstrated a family of entertainment devices that promise to fill a need that many households have today. This multi-room media center hub has the potential to popularize and improve upon one of the best home media platforms available.

Related

Read our original post from CES.

Listen to our interview with Ceton’s Chief Marketing Officer.

Watch this and other videos on our YouTube channel.

Be sure to check all of our CES coverage at The Digital Media Zone.

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About the author

Richard Gunther

Richard is a product experience consultant with a life-long interest in consumer electronics. He has been immersed in smart home tech for decades now and hosts The DMZ's home automation podcast, Home: On and co-hosts Entertainment 2.0 with Josh Pollard. Richard looks at products through an experience lens, always seeking the right mix of utility and delight.