The options for unleashing multimedia content in your home.
Separated at birth: Apple TV versus Archos TV+
Apple TV delivers direct access to the iTunes Store, so you don't need to dash between your computer and your TV set. Movie rentals from the major Hollywood studios are now available and often in at least 720p high-definition and 5.1 Dolby surround sound.
With a fast broadband connection, these play within a few minutes. You can also access online photo galleries from Flickr and .Mac Accounts, as well as view online podcasts and YouTube videos and your own video library.
The small set-top attaches to your TV and streams various media over your wireless or wired home network. Unlike many digital media adapters, the Apple TV can't stream many common video file formats such as DivX, Xvid, AVI, WMV, and MPEG directly from the hard drive. These files must be converted and imported into the iTunes software using third party transcoding software.
The Apple TV itself is a tiny, silver square with rounded corners that will fit just about anywhere. It is finished in the classic Apple off-white and available in 40GB and and 160GB. The interface is easy-to-use - would we expect anything less from Apple? It will be familiar to anyone who's ever used the iTunes Store. But the tiny remote can be frustrating when doing extensive searches and the graphical pages used for highlighted content and search results can be overwhelming.
After a few seconds of inactivity, the system will default to a screensaver of your photos or cover art. For plasma TV owners, the display will alternate from left to right to minimise plasma burn.
Another plus is that the device uses the new 802.11n standard. Streaming HD movies rented from the iTunes store was the biggest challenge, but it handled it with relative ease. When enough of the video has buffered, a second screen will then pop up to confirm that you can start watching the movie.
The Archos TV+ looks very similar to the Apple TV and is aimed at the same audience. Archos is the French company known for its range of portable media players and personal video recorders (PVRs) - and clearly the operating system is based on the same interface that exists on the company's existing range of devices.
Movies, however, cannot be played at any higher resolution than standard definition - which is disappointing - despite the fact that the device sports an HDMI interface for connection to modern TVs (other inputs and outputs are available).
There is one big plus that Archos has over Apple's media extender - it can deal with a variety of different codecs such as DiVx, AVI, WMV and MPEG. This will eliminate the need to convert videos before playing.
Also, with the various inputs, you can hook-up to your Freeview or satellite set-top box and it can act as a PVR, recording directly to the device's hard drive.
You can download movie rentals from the Archos Content Portal, sync up to video and audio podcasts, stream music from the PC, surf the Web via an Opera browser, access an abundance of Opera widgets (news, weather and so on), play Flash-based games, and browse photographs on your PC.
So, on the face of it, it appears to be outclassing the Apple TV.
Unfortunately, to change the channel on your set top box, the device is infrared, which means that it has to be facing the box. Who in the world would do this in their living room? Also, the quality of the recorded stream is very poor - with very few capabilities of changing the recording resolution.
The user interface is very poor when compared with the Apple TV. However, it does have a more extensive remote control with a full QWERTY keyboard. This means that you will be able to name or rename files with ease.
Overall, the Apple TV is a flawless device if all you want to do is extend your iTunes and MP4 content to your TV. With the addition of YouTube and Flickr, it tries to be versatile enough to satisfy its core fan base.
The Archos TV+, on the other hand, tries to be a jack of all trades and clearly is not a master of any. It's a sensible all round device, but only if you're happy to put up with its various quirks and relatively primitive user interface.
I like to watch my favourite TV programmes and movies in the bedroom without disturbing my partner, who is more comfortable with a paperback.
Currently, I'm using headphones connected directly to the audio out of my TV with an extended cable. However, having a cable trailing across the bedroom floor in the middle of the night is far from ideal.
I have considered various wireless audio options, but should I opt for an RF analogue receiver and transmitter or use a digital system based on Bluetooth?
Paul Dickenson, via email
Of the two options that you are considering, both have their pluses and minuses. Using an RF transmitter with RF receiving headphones is robust enough if you're in the same room as the transmitter. However, there is no open standard and typically both transmitter and receiving device come as a set. My favourite is the RS120 from Sennheiser. It is an open, wireless RF headphone system. The set also comes with an easy recharge function and offers a range of 100m.
The alternative would be to opt for a Bluetooth audio transmitter, such as the Sony TMRBT10, for non-Bluetooth devices. You can connect this portable transmitter to your audio socket to transmit sound to your Bluetooth headphones or speakers giving you a choice of receiving headphones or devices. The downside is that the maximum range is just 10m.
I have recently moved into an area where cable television is not readily available and there are restrictions on installing a satellite dish as the property is a listed building.
However, I am keen on receiving more high-definition channels. Do I have any other options?
R Hookham, via email
At present, unfortunately, there are few options if you don't have access to cable or satellite.
However, the BBC has begun test transmissions of an updated digital terrestrial TV transmission standard which promises to increase the payload of transmission by at least 30 per cent. This should mean that there will be more bandwidth available for HD broadcasts - perhaps three to four channels by the end of 2009. Although you will require a DVB-T2 compatible set-top box.
Expect the first generation of set-top boxes to be in stores early next year.
I hear from the BBC News that the UK is about to adopt strict battery recycling targets. Are these regulations now in force? But I'm confused as to where the responsibility will lie - with the manufacturers or the consumers?
Bryan Huk MIET, via email
A very timely question! The new regulations that set the framework for businesses wishing to put batteries on the UK market were published last month after being approved by the government.
The Batteries and Accumulators (Placing on the Market) Regulations 2008 set out the technical requirements with which producers of batteries, and battery-powered appliances, must now comply.
The regulations, which implement certain provisions of the EU Batteries and Accumulators Directive (2006/66/EC), aim to: Facilitate the free movement of compliant batteries across the EU; Protect the environment by reducing the levels of heavy metals they are allowed to contain; and introduce a labelling regime in preparation for coming 'producer responsibility' legislation designed to achieve high collection and recycling rates
The requirements include: Materials prohibitions - restrictions on the use of mercury and cadmium in the manufacture of batteries, unless they are to be used in specific exempt appliances, or in industrial applications, in the case of cadmium; Labelling - the application of the 'crossed out wheelie-bin' and the chemical symbols for lead, mercury or cadmium, where appropriate; Removability of waste batteries from certain appliances, which manufacturers will be required to design in such a way that waste batteries can be readily removed.
But that shouldn't stop us consumers taking proactive measures.
- Go to www.theiet.org/consumer [new window] where there will be links to useful websites.