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CES: Monsoon and Zagg, pushing Hollywood's buttons

January 10, 2010 |  9:00 am

Volcano Front Angle Device makers search relentlessly for new features or combinations thereof that enable people to do something extra with the movies and music they acquire. That's why the Consumer Electronics Show, which wraps up today in Las Vegas, often seems like a parade of horribles for Hollywood: Some manufacturer invariably shows off a device that gives the studios something new to worry about. 

Looked at another way, however, consumer electronics companies are continually finding ways to let people get more out of their CDs, DVDs and downloads. That's a good thing for the entertainment industry because it makes their wares more valuable to the buying public.

Here are two examples from this year's show that illustrate the tension between gear makers and content owners:

The Volcano

Monsoon Multimedia of San Mateo, Calif., introduced its first generation of Hava set-top boxes a few years ago, marketing them as a combination place-shifting (a la Sling) and time-shifting (a la TiVo) gadget. Reviews were tepid, so naturally the company decided to make a box that does even more. The new capabilities of the Volcano (shown above) include streaming and copying live or recorded programs to a smart phone and streaming video from the Web. If it works as advertised (it's due in March), it will be a commercial-skipping, cable-bypassing, analog-hole-exploiting, retransmitting machine. For personal use, of course.

It's also a way for consumers to watch what they've paid to watch, when they want to watch it, with more choice of screens to watch it on. Assuming, again, that it works as advertised.

Colin Stiles, a marketing executive at Monsoon, said the company has addressed one of the studios' top concerns. It no longer lets people retransmit programs to more than one viewer at a time outside the home. Nor has it enabled users to skip commercials automatically when they record programs, as it could do, said Steve Stone, the company's chief technical officer. And although Monsoon may initially have been viewed as the enemy, its image has improved dramatically among service providers, Stiles asserted. "Now they're saying, we need to work with you."

The Volcano will sell for $299 with a 250 GB hard drive or $199 without a drive.

The Zaggbox

The proliferation of inputs on the back of the Zaggbox hints at its purpose: to be the central storehouse for a home's media collection. Due in April from Salt Lake City-based Zagg, the set-top box can record TV shows, DVDs and even high-definition Blu-ray disks as they play on devices wired into the rear panel. Or so says Cameron Gibbs, the company's director of new product. Noting the device's ability to record shows off copy-protected discs, Gibbs said, "That's what's going to drive the interest" among consumers. The storage capacity will be either 500 GB or 1 TB, he said.

Oh and yes, the box will be able to stream its recordings over home networks and the Internet (reformatting when needed for iPhones).

The Zaggbox represents one of the things that studio executives fear most: an easy way for people to make permanent copies of the movies they rent (the so-called rent-rip-and-return scenario). But Zagg's new device is hardly the first tool of that kind -- if anything, it's just the first to do it in the living room. Nor does it duplicate discs; it can make (slowly) a copy of a movie, but it can't copy the interactive features that enhance the appeal and usability of DVDs and Blu-ray discs.

In other words, the Zaggbox seems like a pretty lousy piracy tool, and not a terribly efficient way to transfer a bunch of movies onto a hard drive. If you're up to no good, there are better ways to go about doing it. But if you're a traveler trying to get more out of your cable subscription, or a movie buff who'd rather store your collection on a hard drive than in your bookshelf, the Zaggbox's promised features make sense.

The price is expected to be less than $1,000, and initial availability will be limited to Zagg's website.

-- Jon Healey

Photo credit: Monsoon Multimedia

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division. Follow him on Twitter: @jcahealey