High-Tech for the Holidays

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Men laying new hardwood flooring

With the holidays right around the corner, many homeowners are dreaming of their ideal gifts. Thanks to the ever-changing innovations in home entertainment, its no wonder high-tech gadgets are topping many wish lists.

Photo courtesy of Design Cinema & Acoustics

CUE THE MOVIE
With new products and lower prices, home theaters are more popular than ever. Dennis Erskine, founder and executive vice president of Design Cinema & Acoustics, a division of The Home Shoppe in Marietta, says hes seeing more customers interested in creating home theaters. They are dedicating a room in their house for families to gather, he says. And there is a greater demand for cinema-scope screens. Erskine says shoppers are spending between $10,000 and $70,000 to outfit their home theaters.

According to Mark Hendrix, general manager of Sight and Sound in Duluth, consumers can purchase a complete home entertainment system at his storeincluding digital light projector, 120-inch screen, speakers, receiver, DVD player and programmed all-in-one remotefor less than $10,000 installed.

In addition to high-tech projectors, plasma and LCD flat-screen televisions continue to gain popularity with consumers. The big-box TV set is dead, Erskine says. And now may be a great time to buy. Prices are falling, Hendrix says. He says he expects to see a 42-inch high-definition plasma TV for $1,999 in time for Christmas shopping. Design-conscious innovations like ArtScreen by Vutec ($2,850 and up) allow homeowners to hide the plasma TV until its needed. A piece of motorized art covers the screen, which can be revealed at the touch of a button. Framed in hardwood, ArtScreen appears to be a fine work of art until showtime.

High-definition televisions are another in-demand viewing innovation. The greater availability of HDTV programming is contributing to the demand of these TVs, says David Hardy, owner/president of Interior Media in Atlanta. Until recently, the availability of HD programming was very limited. This seems to be changing fairly quickly as the number of programs and dedicated HDTV channels is ever-increasing.

Photo courtesy of Digital Interiors Inc.

MAINTAIN CONTROL
To keep a handle on their various home-entertainment components, many homeowners are opting for a master programmable remote control. The remote control is a very central part of any home theater, says Donnie Lee of Allwired Technologies. Once properly programmed, operating the home-entertainment system comes easy. It is the quality of the programming and setup of the remote that often determines how simple the system is to operate, Hardy says. If done properly and well, these remotes are very intuitive and easy to use, making even the most sophisticated audio/video system a real pleasure to use.

This holiday season, Logitechs Harmony 880 is the hot all-in-one remote control. We cant keep it in stock, Hendrix says. This neat gadget handles up to 16 devices and is priced around $249. Outfitted with a large color display, the remote comes with rechargeable lithium ion batteries and a charger, eliminating the need for new batteries. Once its programmed, you can watch television or play your favorite DVD by pressing just one button, eliminating the need for tons of separate remotes taking up space and causing confusion in your family room.

Programming the new, user-friendly remote controls is almost as easy as using them. All you have to do is connect the remote to your computer, and a Web guide will take you through the setup step by step, allowing you to enter the model numbers of all your specific components, from the television to the stereo. It will even ask questions to help you personalize your system. Once the remote is set up, youre ready to go! The easy-to-read screen will guide you from there. And if you replace your TV or get a new video game system, all you have to do is hook your remote back up to the computer and enter in the new model numbers. Before you know it, youll be able to hide that old, confusing pile of remote controls out of sight. But dont throw them away yetyou never know when you might pass on a retired piece of equipment to a friend or family member.

SERVE UP THE SOUND
Distributed or automated audio remains a popular choice with homeowners as well. With these audio systems, residents can download their entire CD or MP3 collection to a central music server. A great example is the VIA! dj, which can be accessed with any VIA! Touch Panel or television throughout the home. This digital music server contains a 160GB hard drive, which stores approximately 2,800 hours of music (compressed) or 240 hours (uncompressed). Listeners can select tunes by artist, CD, track, genre or playlist. The system comes with four audio outputs for multiroom listening, as well as a digital jukebox feature that allows you to create personal song lists.

Along the same lines, manufacturers are now producing media servers to hold DVDs and videos that can be accessed anywhere in the home. This technology is becoming widely popular, Erskine says. Multiple TVs can [allow families to] watch different movies at the same time. He says hes seeing entry pricing for these systems in the $4,000 range.

Photo courtesy of AVI Inc.

MAKING IT ALL WORK
When many people think of putting together or operating their home-entertainment systems, panic usually ensues. After all, theyve never been able to stop that flashing clock on the VCR, so how could they possibly connect the DVD player and program that remote? Thankfully, there are professionals willing to assist consumers with this problem. Depending on what you purchase, professional installation may be included in the price, but sometimes, its not.

The cost of installation should be included in your overall budget and, unless you are strongly versed in home-entertainment components, should not be omitted. The installation process varies from component to component, Hardy says. It can be as small and simple as setting up a stand-alone TV to as complicated as designing, building, wiring, installing and programming an entire custom system.

Therefore, you should carefully consider the process involved with your purchase before making the decision to install yourself or hire the pros. After all, you dont want to spend the next week trying to figure out how to watch your TV when you could have paid $100, for example, to save yourself the headache. Also, even if you feel competent enough to install your home-entertainment system, many manufacturers warranties require professional installation in order for the warranty to be valid. If you are debating on paying for that service, carefully review your products warranties for installation requirements before making a decision.

STILL STATE-OF-THE-ART?
Watch the news or any advertisement for home-entertainment technology, and it seems these products are changing on a daily basis. While that is true to a certain extent, there is no need to worry that todays television set or music server will be history long before the new has worn off. The component you buy today will give you the same enjoyment three years from now, Erskine says.

Yes, there will be improvements down the road, but updating and/or replacing your equipment should not be necessary before it wears out. Theres no need unless you want the latest, greatest thing, Hendrix says.

Photo courtesy of Panasonic

CHOOSING THE RIGHT STUFF
Perhaps the most important factor to consider while shopping for home-entertainment products is what will best suit you and your family. To expedite the shopping process, do some research before visiting any stores. Check out home-technology magazines or go online and learn about the basics. Once you have an idea whats available, youll have a better handle on what you see in the store.

Next, talk with a home-entertainment professional about your wants and needs. Tell me what your usage is and what you want to do, Hendrix says. Give me a floor plan, then I can help you.

Also, Erskine says to set your budget asideat first. A buyer needs to erase from their mind price, he says. Sit down with a reputable dealer and say, This is what I want. Then go back to price.

When consulting the professionals, Erskine suggests seeking out qualified, certified people to give advice. He recommends talking to a home automation designer certified by the Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association (CEDIA). CEDIA requires members to undergo special training and pass exams regarding home technology. You can locate a nearby CEDIA dealer by visiting www.cedia.org. Finding a good, honest, reputable and knowledgeable company is truly the best way to be confident with ones decisions, Hardy says.

Photo courtesy of Toshiba

TV TALK
Is the new TV lingo making your head spin? Here are the basics on the terms you probably hear most.


HDTV High Definition Television
HDTV screens have more than double the amount of pixels your old analog television has, and this enhanced resolution creates beautiful pictures. Many HDTV screens are also in widescreen format, giving the viewer a broader perspective of movies, sporting events and other shows. HDTV also has the advantage of broadcasting in Dolby Digital 5.1-channel surround sound, virtually bringing whatever youre watching into the room with you. Plasma and LCD are two types of displays for HDTV.

Plasma
Light is produced independently at each pixel on a plasma TV screen, whereas other types of televisions project a separate light source off of or through other elements to create the picture you see on the screen. Plasma TV offers sleek, flat-screen design, amazing color accuracy, consistent focus and more lifelike images. The disadvantages, such as burn-in from static images, are minimal, and new technology is hard at work correcting them.

LCD Liquid Crystal Display
LCD technology streams high-intensity white light through cells filled with a liquid crystal material, with electrical charges regulating the intensity of the light that reaches the screen. LCD TVs are known for being exceptionally thin and light, producing bright, easily viewed pictures and showing sharp, rich images. They also tend to run more quietly and at a lower temperature than plasma TVs. A disadvantage is that LCD displays sometimes have trouble with contrast, missing the richness of deep blacks.

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