Gadget makers have long dreamed about creating a low-cost multimedia machine for the living room that can play games, record video and handle a host of other chores. But as Apex Digital has discovered, it's harder than it seems.
By marrying a video game machine with a digital video recorder, Apex ran into an engineering headache.
The Southern California company recently announced that it would sell its ApeXtreme gaming machine for $499 starting in August. The machine can play computer games on a TV set and can comfortably fit in a living room entertainment center. Since the cost turned out to be higher than most video game consoles, Apex decided to throw in digital video recording capability.
"We felt we needed more features," said Steve Brothers, Apex's vice president of business development.
But in adding features, it encountered an engineering problem unique to multimedia devices. It's a problem that console makers such as Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo will face when they design their next-generation video game machines.
The trouble arises when a video game and the digital video recorder need to use the machine's hard disk drive at the same time. Video games, particularly those designed for personal computers or Microsoft's Xbox, sometimes activate a hard disk to access art, save a game or download data from the Internet.
But more often than not, a game will require so much processing power that it will keep a machine's microprocessor and graphics chips busy at all times. So if the DVR is pre-programmed to record a show at a particular time, and someone happens to be playing a game when the recording begins, there could be too little processing power to download the TV program.
"It's a very difficult problem," said Ying Wong, an Apex engineer.
The first digital video recorders had similar drawbacks. When you recorded a show on one channel, you couldn't watch a show on another channel. Companies such as TiVo added more components called tuners, allowing the processing of multiple pieces of video at the same time.
But a game can be much more taxing on a machine's resources, leaving none to handle simultaneous video recording, Wong said. Moreover, accessing the hard disk at the same time requires either clever software or some extremely fast processors and a large amount of main memory.
A manufacturer could solve this problem by building in redundant components, as TiVo did with TV tuners. But game consoles are often low-cost machines that can't accommodate such a solution for price reasons. The next-generation systems might be powerful enough to run a game and record a video simultaneously, but not if future games use even more resources than today.
For now, Apex has dodged the problem. When a gamer is playing on the ApeXtreme and the time comes to record a video, the system sends the user a message: Either shut down the game or skip the recording.