The DigiConn Awards

Digital Connect Magazine's DigiConn awards were created to recognize the excellence being shown by integrators and system builders in integrated home and office solutions, as well as PC designs. The entries received were truly impressive, sent in by companies that are in tune with their customers' needs, and push the limits of products and technologies to build enhanced solutions that serve them better.

Here we profile the best of those entries. We peek inside a solution based on Exceptional Innovation's Life|ware platform, Media Center PCs and CAT 5e cabling in a 10,000-square-foot custom home; and take a look at a small form-factor PC that destroys the notion that all multimedia PCs must be big and bulky. We look at a small office computer with beefed-up storage and backup features to secure customer data, and a wireless solution that helps teachers communicate.

We also highlight crucial market trends and important lessons learned by the integrators and builders that helped them achieve greatness. From overcoming customer concerns about the reliability and stability of recommended products, to taking every feasible step to protect the security of the systems from outsiders, the winners' acumen and capabilities distinguish them from their peers.

Read this report carefully--the strengths and features of the winning solutions will help spark further innovation in the market, and should help you achieve improved customer focus, creativity and profitability.

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The Winners:

System Control Award: eHome Integration
Media-Centric PC Builder Award: PC Club
Home and Commercial Systems Integration Award: LinkYour HouseWireless System Award: Prime SystemsHome Office Award: AM ComputersFull IP-Based Premise Security Award: Tangora Technologies

System Control Award
Winner: eHome Integration

Digital Connect editors judged solutions in the System Control category based on the overall variety of systems and devices integrated, innovation of the total solution and its usefulness to the customer. The winner was eHome Integration, Sammamish, Wash., for a completely IP-based, open-standards solution providing automation, media streaming, security and more in a 10,000-square-foot custom home and neighboring building for the home's staff.

EHome selected Exceptional Innovation's Life|ware software for home and media control based on the product's use of Web services and .Net, its strong ties to Windows XP Media Center Edition and its solid technical support. Several rack-mounted Media Center PCs from Hewlett-Packard and Sony made up the backbone of the system, acting as servers for background recording and multimedia content storage. Displays throughout the house use Microsoft Xbox 360 units to access content on the Media Center PCs.

The customer had reservations about a system based on Windows XP Media Center due to concerns that it would be unstable, crash frequently and would not scale well for a whole home. EHome overcame those concerns through detailed demonstrations of the platform, and by assuring the customer it would install the same degree of reliability, security and redundancy in the home as found in global enterprises.

In addition to content stored on the Media Center PCs, the system also distributes HD video sourced from the home's cable line, and satellite radio and audio via Russound products over CAT 5e wiring. The integrator set up VPNs, guest computer logins and dynamic protection against viruses, spyware and intrusions.

Digital Connect editors also were impressed with an installation by New York-based VideoSonic Systems. The integrator used IT servers, projectors, speakers and other A/V and IT products to create an immersive multimedia presentation at New York's Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Intrepid. All of the system's audio and video streams, control commands and power travel over CAT 5e cables.

Media-Centric PC Builder Award
Winner: PC Club

Most Media Center PCs and other multimedia computers are big and boxy, and look too much like traditional computers to succeed next to a TV and fancy surround-sound system. Therefore, when a Media Center PC is small, stylish, well designed and includes a strong feature set, it's sure to grab our attention.

The Enpower EN-MX1 Media Center Xpress sold by City of Industry, Calif.-based system builder and online computer store PC Club has the looks and size to succeed anywhere in the home. The PC is clad in a bright yellow façade with see-through walls, internal blue lights and an LED fan. A handle on the front of the unit makes transport easy, and the case is secured via three thumb screws, so accessing the interior for upgrades is easy.

The EN-MX1's spec list also is impressive, making it suitable for TV, gaming and other multimedia tasks. The PC has two SATA hard drives, one with 200 Gbytes of space and one with 150 Gbytes, for ample storage of digital media. Powered by an AMD Athlon 64 CPU, the unit includes a micro ATX motherboard, Hauppauge TV tuner, wireless remote and keyboard, Windows XP Media Center Edition and security software from CA. At $2,299, the unit is in the middle of the range of Media Center PC prices and priced well for the feature set.

Though the unit has a large number of USB and FireWire connections, we would like to see a media-card reader integrated into the unit. The system's fans also made an extreme amount of noise, which is a possible deterrent to acceptance in the home.

Home And Commercial System Integration Award
Winner: Link Your House

For this category, we looked for the best systems for home and commercial installations based on media-centric PCs. Norcross, Ga.-based integrator Link Your House won with a solution for an Atlanta home that brought together several systems and devices in original ways, and used a multimedia PC for media streaming and control.

The integration included audio and HD video distribution, security, lighting control, climate control and television recording. The core of the system was a PC running Windows XP Media Center Edition as well as the Omni Pro II security system from Home Automation Inc. (HAI). The PC was installed in the basement and served as a central store for the owners' photos, videos, movies and recorded TV. It was configured to automatically update and reboot nightly to ensure reliability. The Media Center PC is headless, lacking a display, mouse and keyboard to boost its security. Televisions in the master bedroom, basement media room and family room were connected to the home's network via Xbox 360 units, which allow them to be used for gaming and access multimedia content on the Media Center PC. Because all of the content is centrally located, it can be accessed from any TV in the home.

The Omni Pro II system provides security and HVAC control, as well as access to programming for the home's lighting and integration systems. The home also includes two CAT 5 surveillance cameras; the video can be viewed from any of the home's TVs. The Omni system connects to the PC via a Media Center plug-in from HAI. This allows the owners to access all of their media and control systems through the Media Center interface.

Digital Connect editors gave an honorable mention to Process Digital Entertainment Services, an integrator in Paso Robles, Calif. Process uses a custom-built PC running Windows XP Media Center to provide digital signage and entertainment capabilities for small businesses and homes. The company's My Media Machine was recently installed in a tasting room at a boutique winery and plays video and audio clips, slide shows and other multimedia content. The system is controlled via the Media Center interface, and the company offers remote monitoring.

Wireless System Award
Winner: Prime Systems

For the Wireless System Award, we were looking for solutions that use wireless technology not as simple pieces of larger solutions, but as key elements to enable creative installations.

Prime Systems, a Houston-based integrator and division of the online computer store, developed a wireless mobile whiteboard for use in education. The company configured a tablet PC to send the contents of its screen wirelessly to a projector in the room. This allows teachers to sit at their desks or walk around a room demonstrating notes or formulas to particular students while the contents of the screen are displayed to the entire class. Because the solution is based on a computer, presenters can download materials from the Internet, show moving graphics or other interactive demonstrations to the class. The tablet also can be used by individual students to try problems themselves with the participation of other members of the class. We were impressed with the high degree of integration between the pieces of the solution, as well as the many opportunities it presents to integrators.

Home Office Award
Winner: AM Computers

For the Home Office category, Digital Connect editors were looking for a robust and capable solution that can form the core of a networked home or small- business office. Many people store all of their personal information, family financial data, multimedia content and files related to their jobs on a single home computer. They rarely back up the data and risk losing everything if a problem arises. To help customers in this situation, Santa Monica, Calif.-based integrator AM Computers developed its BreviServer line of home and small-business servers. We were impressed with the line's ample storage space, backup capabilities and server features.

AM Computers offers two levels of the BreviServer system. The BreviServer Elite includes an externally-accessible SATA RAID array with four 120-Gbyte hard drives for plenty of storage, and a server motherboard. The BreviServer Pro includes a SATA RAID array with two 120-Gbyte mirrored hard drives and a desktop motherboard. Both models include high-end power supplies, 64-bit dual core processors and Windows XP Professional. The Elite version can be upgraded to Microsoft Small Business Server. To protect the data stored on them, both units automatically run backups, and include preconfigured antivirus and antispam software, firewalls, disaster and recovery applications, and battery backup. The company also offers supplemental off-site backup and remote system-monitoring services, which are extremely useful. The systems are housed in aluminum cases that include temperature sensors and multiple fans to protect the physical well-being of the drives.

At $2,695 for the BreviServer Elite model and $1,895 for the Pro model, both units offer plenty of storage and data security for the price. Integrators should seriously consider developing similar solutions for their customers.

Full IP-Based Premise Security
Winner: Tangora Technologies

Home and small-business owners need strong premise security systems that are easy to use and include a variety of products to protect their family members or employees and their assets. As part of a multiroom audio, theater and structured wiring project for a home customer, Tangora Technologies, Delmar, N.Y., installed a security and management system that ties together numerous systems and devices to provide a deep level of protection.

Tangora swapped out the home's original security system and replaced it with an Omni LT Panel from HAI and a Windows 2000 server to run the home's systems. The integrator kept the home's smoke/heat detectors and burglary sensors, and installed additional smoke/heat detectors, motion sensors and IP surveillance cameras inside and outside the house. The owners can check video from the home's cameras via televisions inside the home, and can remotely monitor the video and other products from any device with a Web browser via a secure DDNS connection. In addition to alerting the police or fire departments to problems in the home, the system also can automatically send e-mail notifications to the owners' cell phones or PDAs, as well as service messages to Tangora.

Tangora also included HVAC and lighting/utility management devices for added functionality. In addition to allowing the customers to improve the energy efficiency of the home, the management system lets them create random lighting scenes to give the illusion of occupancy even when the home is empty. Single buttons are included to arm the security products and HVAC systems in various modes such as day, night and away.

The strength of Tangora's solution lies in the wide protection it can offer by combining numerous devices and systems into one. By protecting the home on several levels, integrators can provide peace of mind to customers when they are home or away, and use their installation mettle to reap valuable margins from systems integrations and remote monitoring services.

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