A Revolution in Home Entertainment Systems – Touchscreens & Media Servers

Home entertainment systems have come a long way since you ooh’ ed and ahh’ed because your neighbor had a few pairs of speakers that actually fit flush into his walls. That’s old news now. Even homes in comparatively modest new developments are being outfitted with a full complement of audio, network, TV and telephone wiring. In many developments the builder offers a standard wiring package and various upgrades for additional wiring, speakers, wiring enclosures and even full control systems.

Systems have evolved to include sleek, wall-mounted touch screens that allow simple access to your music and other house functions such as security, lighting, HVAC, and motorized window treatments. A talented programmer can make these systems function with true “one touch” simplicity. It’s almost as if they’re reading your mind.

The touch screen’s advantage is that it can change the control interface to only show what you need at any one time. This affords tremendous flexibility while retaining the simplicity people desire. The touch screen interface is extremely powerful when combined with another technology that has come into prominence recently; the hard disc based media server.
Your CDs are downloaded, or ripped, onto a hard drive. This combination allows your entire music catalog to be displayed on the touch screen for easy searching. You can typically search by artist, song title, genre, or album. Once the desired selection is located, you just touch it on the screen and it begins to play.

These hard drive servers use computer hard drives and modern compression techniques to store phenomenal amounts of music in a simple audio component less than half the size of a 200 disc CD changer. They function just like a typical CD player, not your computer, so they are reliable and easy to use.

Media servers have exploded in popularity recently because of the enormous popularity of compressed music formats such as MP3 and the fantastic array of functionality a disc based system allows.
For those who have, or do, own CD mega changers, a hard drive music server will be like a breath of fresh air.

Access to any song is typically less than a second away. Contrast that to selecting disc 94 in your 300-disc CD changer when you are playing disc 201. With a multi-room audio system, you may be on the other side of your house trying to do this with a keypad or remote control. The wait for your changer to return the disc it was playing then trundle the carousel around to your desired disc can seem like an eternity.

Another advantage is easy cataloging. Most hard drive systems will recognize any CD you insert for ripping and if they don’t, they are connected to the internet for access to a giant database. This they access automatically to gather artist, album and track information. Gone are the days of using a keyboard or remote to tediously enter the information about your CDs into a CD changer. You can also stop worrying about which slot your discs are in. “Let’s see, was Led Zeppelin IV in slot 90 or 190?”
Using a hard drive server frees up your CDs for use elsewhere such as your car, boat or vacation home.

In addition, since your CDs are not locked up in a changer, your collection is able to be enjoyed by many members of the family at once. With a changer, if someone is listening to it, all of the discs inside it are basically off limits. With a changer, not only are your CDs free for use in other locations but many hard drive servers provide multiple audio outputs.

Multiple outputs enable you to listen to different discs in different areas of the house if your system is so configured. For example, one person could be listening to Korn in the rec room while Bach’s Requiem is being played in the kitchen and Dire Straights in the bedroom. With a conventional CD changer, this is impossible.

You can also buy and store music from many online music services and store those on your hard drive server.
Hard drive servers offer advantages over music files stored on a computer as well. Because they function like a traditional audio component, they are easier to use for many people. It is also easier to integrate them with touch screen based home control systems. This will begin to change as the popularity of multimedia PCs such as those running Microsoft XP Media Center Edition 2005 increases.

These units are many steps closer to delivering the long promised “convergence” between consumer electronics and computers. Multimedia PCs, also known as HTPCs [Home Theater PC] function as DVD players, personal video recorders (similar to a TiVO), and hard drive media storage.

They allow storage of digital photos for easy display on your TV or monitor. HTPCs can, of course, browse the net on your TV via your broadband connection. As hard drive storage becomes more economical and compression techniques become better, the storage of HD movies and HDTV programming will become commonplace.

Soon these types of servers and interfaces will become the norm rather than the exception. You’ll think nothing of the amazing array of features offered and the ability to easily access your media collection throughout your home. Once a rarity, media servers, in one form or another, will be found in almost every home.

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Home Entertainment Systems – Selecting a Video Display for your Family

Home electronics has become a fascinating topic on the lips of consumers and technology fanatics across the globe. It seems that a good combination of equipment has become almost a rite of passage for some homeowners and in many circles of friends. While electronics that deal with such important factors as lighting, heating and communicating are all incredible and somewhat of a necessity, the real eye-poppers have always been part of the home entertainment scene. HD technology has created a huge new surge of components and sound systems are constantly being reworked, reimagined, and reinvented. To complement these technological pieces, a good home entertainment system needs to have a clear and functioning video display unit. But with so many available technologies out there to choose from, what is the best of the lot?

The “best” is really in the eye of the beholder, and also in the desired needs of the consumer. Everything from big screen entertainment systems to projector screens can be purchased to enhance a home entertainment system. However, preferences are given to certain devices for various reasons. Some may give sharper pictures, others may be easier to work, and yet others may simply be easier to keep maintained. Choosing the proper mix of all these qualities will help you find the perfect type of video display to make part of your system.

Let’s start by discussing big screen technology. Home theaters are often judged not only by the quality of the equipment that makes them up, but on the size of the screen that is the focal point of the whole home theater. Televisions come in all shapes and sizes these days, but the widescreen television sets are by far the kings of the set. The only problem that big screen televisions have faced is in picture quality. Sometimes the picture would not be as sharp as if it were viewed on a smaller screen, especially from certain angles. With HD technology leading the way now, that problem has been solved. Big screen televisions now almost always give crisp, clear images, but the differences lie in the types of screens.

Plasma television sets are definitely the playboys of the big screen televisions. With their sleek designs and sexy appeal, any home theatre will be looking its best with one of these. However, while style and picture quality are top-notch, there are some technical problems that tend to come up with plasmas. Mainly, these include connectivity, of which there are often limited choices or amounts. So for those who plan to have numerous output cables attached to a television, it may be better to stay away from plasmas, unless an outside electronic box is purchased to wire multiple connections as an intermediary. The other problem with plasma televisions are the price. While a big screen television of the same size, although boxy in appearance, may cost a pretty penny, buying the same size plasma will apply a noticeable increase in the price tag.

Increasingly popular video display equipment is projector screen technology. This brings a real cinema appeal to your home theatre. These can often give the clearest image possible with current technology, but you need to know exactly what will work best with the conditions of your home theater. There are various color screens that could be purchased, white and grey being the primary. White is perfect for a theatre in a windowless room, while grey should be used if there is ambient lighting or sunlight that could affect the image quality on a white screen. Some downsides to the projector screen technology is that many models run loud and hot, which could be distracting and lead towards poor maintenance quality.

Besides the types of video display equipment available, the technology employed by each is also important to look at. Many people like LCD screens, while many more prefer CRM technology. Perhaps the best resolution you can get is 1080 p, which is rare among plasma screens, but readily available in other forms of video display equipment. You simply need to find the conditions that meet you theater best, ask the right questions when you’re about to purchase the product, and of course have in your mind the picture of your ideal home theatre system.

-Ben Anton, 2007

Five Tips For Buying A Home Entertainment System

Looking for a new home entertainment system? Here are five tips for choosing the best model for your home environment.

1. Choose a system that can be expanded. Most of your music collection may be on CDs, but with the growing popularity of DVD audio you don’t want to be left behind. Even if you are only interested in stereo sound make sure you buy a system that can be adapted to new technologies. This includes video as well as audio mediums. Buy a stereo system for now, but make sure it has surround sound capabilities.

Also consider whether you want your home entertainment system accessible in different parts of the house. An expandable system allows you to place speaker systems and playback modules in different rooms so that you can enjoy home entertainment throughout the house.

2. Buy a system with enough power. This goes hand-in-hand with the previous tip. Don’t buy a unit which has just enough power for your current needs, but rather, think about how you will be expand it in the future. Surround sound speaker systems require more power than stereo, and satellite speakers systems installed in other rooms also require extra power.

Dedicated power amps for different parts of your home entertainment system can make a vast difference in the quality of sound. For example, a subwoofer amp can take the load off the rest of your system will providing massively deep bass sounds.

3. Choose a system that matches your entertainment preferences. If you are mainly interested in DVD video a surround sound speaker system can add amazing authenticity to your viewing experience. On the other hand, if you mostly listen to classical music, divide your budget so that you can get a good set of stereo speakers. If you like rap or hip-hop you should choose speakers designed for bass heavy music — a subwoofer is a necessity.

4. Make it backwards compatible. Many people still have a sizable collection of VHS tapes and vinyl records. Rather than throwing out these valuable sources of entertainment, make sure your new entertainment system can handle them.

5. Buy the best you can afford. It’s a waste of money to buy inferior components for your home entertainment system. You will quickly become dissatisfied with them and end up ditching them. If you have a limited budget, divide it up wisely. Rather than starting with a full-featured audio and video home entertainment system, concentrate on a few components. As long as your system is expandable, you can continue adding new features as your budget allows.