Do you have trouble pinning down that elusive DVD when your busy schedule finally allows you time to view it? Well, if you've got the brass - all twenty-five grand (upwards!) of it - the Kaleidescape may well be the solution to your problem.

Basically, it's a system that stores all of your DVDs on the hard disks of a 'scalable' (ie, expandable) server. To this, via a wired home network (no Wi-Fi here - the unpredictable data rates would compromise performance!) are connected 'clients' - or 'movie players' - that feed the audio and video to your displays.

The Kaleidescape server can be tucked away while the movie players can be installed wherever required. The system is professionally installed by a CEDIA dealer - this is not the kind of product you could hook up yourself (although some Silicon Valley tech-heads have apparently successfully risen to the challenge).

In addition to the server and movie players, various networking hardware (like an Ethernet switch) has to be present and correctly-configured.

Like the servers that underpin your internet provider's operations, the Kaleidescape equivalent has to deal with a lot of data at one time - depending on the MPEG2 bitrates involved, as many as seven movie players could each be independently 'streaming' different DVD-sourced content over the network.

Alas, the data transfer rate 'ceiling' of Ethernet currently prevents more users from being added. Note that Kaleidescape isn't built around PC hardware and software. Instead, it's based around the same compromise-free architectures that you'll find in, for example, financial computing. This has been designed with resilience in mind, and is less likely to crash than the average Windows home PC.

Just the job

The operating system and software were written specifically for the job - not even Linux was considered good enough, according to the company's founder Cheena Srinivasan. Then there's the storage, which uses specially-picked hard disk drives.

A key component of the server is a data storage subsystem that can hold a whopping 4.4 Terabytes in up to 12 disk cartridge drives. This equates to 660 average DVDs. The base configuration has 4 HDDs, each with 400GB capacity which can hold approximately 60 DVDs.

Multiple servers can be grouped for 'practically unlimited' capacity. As with mission-critical computer systems, the Kaleidescape storage uses a technology known as RAID (Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks). Here, the data is 'striped' across the multiple disks - should as many as two of them fail, the data that corresponds to your DVDs can be 'rebuilt' from the contents of the others.

The product can self-diagnose a dodgy drive, and the owner will learn of the problem by receiving a new drive from Kaleidescape. It arrives with instructions that explain how to replace the broken one. It's all possible because the system keeps in touch with Kaleidescape itself via a broadband internet connection.

Feeding the server

So how do you get the DVDs on to the server in the first place? An Ethernet-connected DVD 'reader', based on Toshiba hardware, accepts your shiny silver discs and the data is 'ripped' (sorry, 'imported') to the hard drives in a process that takes on average 26 minutes. The dealer will do the job during installation with a special PowerFile 'jukebox'.

The DVD Reader is provided primarily as a means of adding further DVDs as and when they're acquired. The DVD is transferred 'as-is', with all menus, CSS encryption, Macrovision copy-protect 'flags' and special features intact. Movies that span multiple discs are also catered for. No recompression, with any of the possible loss of quality that entails, is applied. The system is configured for Region 2 and the setting can be changed up to four times.

The ability to watch one movie - from any point - in one room while the kids watch something else in another - is cool. But even better is the ability to access and handle the data at a far greater speed than any existing DVD player, let alone multi-disc player. There are no tiresome 'disc-loading' waits here!
A DVD has to spin up the disc and read the data before you can even start.

And then there are the copyright warnings and trailers that can't be bypassed (cheers, Disney!) before you finally end up with the menu screen from which your movie can be launched.

A solid start

Only a few DVD players will launch the movie by simply inserting the disc and they often take a minute or so to start. With the Kaleidescape, conversely, you can start a movie playing in a fraction of a second. Thanks to the system's proprietary 'bookmarks', you can even define the exact point where the movie should start playing to avoid trailers etc.

At this stage, we had better make it clear that the system is only about DVDs. There are no tuners or AV inputs, and so you can't store and distribute TV shows around the home. CDs aren't handled (although a future software upgrade will fix that), and neither are JPEGs, MPEG4 or DiVX.

Kaleidescape told us that the system - including the all-important MPEG2 decoder and video outputs - is hi-def ready. Until add-ons (presumably high-def disc readers, Kaleidescape-sourced hard disks containing HD movies and MPEG4- to-MPEG2 translators, where relevant), the only way you'll get a hi-def output out of the movie player is to upscale your standard-definition DVDs to 720p or 1080i.

Socket to me

The player has a full roster of PAL/NTSC video-output terminals that include HDMI, component, composite and S-video. There are no Scarts, because this product originates from California. What you do get, though, is the same Faroudja DCDi de-interlacing that you'll find in many high-end DVD players. Coaxial and optical digital audio outputs - which will relay Dolby Digital and DTS to an AV system - are joined by analogue stereo ones.

But the Kaleidescape experience is not just about speed and convenience. As well as that broadband connection being used for data/firmware updates and the like, it is also used as the thoroughfare for a service that effectively aims for you to have your very own Halliwell's-style companion in your home.

Like giving accommodation to your very own resident movie anorak, the system will recommend a selection of movies that you will enjoy just from being told you liked a certain film. So far, Kaleidescape has over 15,000 titles detailed.

With the same ease as you can access DVD special features, you can sample information on your server that has come from the company via the Internet. This includes Kaleidescape's own ratings (self-recorded content transferred via DVD can be given your own ratings), a 'micro review' of the film and a thumbnail of the cover art of all the films in your server. This can be called up easily via your remote-control system.

Keeping control

Like so many high-end AV manufacturers, Kaleidescape does not concern itself with designing a better remote control system. Instead, it relies on Crestron or AMX protocols - and a qualified installer to make sure it all works properly.

That said, our demo was via a laptop computer. Of course, all this pretty GUI stuff appears upon your main display screen.

Best of all, select, say Predator's thumbnail and highlight it. All at once, the thumbnails swirl around on the screen and a whole new selection appears around your choice of all the related films - say all the Arnie flicks in there, as well as other actioners that might be in jungles. Or perhaps the Alien films - all related by genre and other factors by the team at Kaleidescape who by all reports are busy bunnies. Clever, too.

As well as supplying hardware and training in how to install its systems with more than one DVD player, or more than one data storage server, the company also sells DVDs in 'collections' - all of the Oscar-winning movies from the thirties onwards, for example. It will import all of the discs and can also deal with boxes of DVDs sent to it for filling in its servers.

The whole thing worked like a dream and sounded and looked as good in results terms as the best DVD players around. What was awesome - and the hardest thing to communicate - is just how much more fun it is to sit on your bum and play with a graphically-driven DVD jukebox that can pull clips and fave scenes out in seconds.

We could write chapters on this kit and still not cover all it does. It may be expensive, but in our opinion this hints at the future of all entertainment systems. In time, movies could be purchased online and then directly downloaded to a Kaleidescape-style server (perhaps overnight) thus obviating the need for the DVDs in the first place.

One day, the idea of movies sold on any kind of physical carrier will be seen as impossibly quaint as wax cylinders seem to us today. Kaleidescape told HCC that it has plans for a much more affordable 'lite' version of its product that could be self-installed (along the lines of audio jukeboxes like the Imerge Soundserver and Yamaha MusicCast).

Until then, the less solvent with a desire to experiment with this technology are advised to try one of the PC-based media streaming solutions like Pinnacle's ShowCenter. Interestingly the ShowCenter, and products of its ilk, will also cope with MP3/WAV audio and MPEG4 video. But at the time of writing, none have the sheer usability of the Kaleidescape. Martin Pipe and Adam Rayner

KALEIDESCAPE: THE LEGAL SITUATION

At the cinema these days, you will regularly see messages from FACT (Federation Against Copyright Theft). The body that protects the copyrights of DVD makers is known as the DVD Copy Control Association Inc (CCA). It is currently pursuing a lawsuit against Kaleidescape, which it accuses of breaching the DVD Content Scramble System (CSS) agreement. Unsurprisingly, Kaleidescape - which sought the advice of copyright lawyers when painstakingly developing its product - disagrees and feels it has adhered to the letter of the agreement. It even ensures that all customers sign a license before obtaining a system - although it has to be said that such legal devices won't prevent the less scrupulous from importing rented or borrowed DVDs. It argues that the case has a precedent, in the form of the mid-1970s Betamax case. Kaleidescape's stated aim is merely to give its customers a more convenient way of enjoying movies that they have already purchased the rights to enjoy (the actual carrier - whether film, VHS, laserdisc, DVD or hard disk - is irrelevant).

In technical terms, Kaleidescape has done all it can. The complete DVD, complete with CSS encryption, is stored - unaltered in any way - on the server's disks. Just like a standard DVD player, every Kaleidescape movie player has the CSS decryption routines built in. You can't share content with other Kaleidescape users or indeed systems (arguably frustrating if you're in the enviable position of being able to afford more than one!). The hard drives are all 'locked' to a particular server, and the sheer volume of data means that the synchronisation of multiple systems over the internet would be impractical in any case. And of course, movie player videooutputs apart (all of which support contentprotection protocols like Macrovision and HDCP) there's no way of getting movies out of the system! But surprisingly, the reader and players are multi-region. Great for those with sizeable collections of imported movies, but something that's unlikely to appeal to The Man...