Saturday, September 17, 2011

iPad or iPhone to control your home theater.

I was in Indianapolis last week attending CEDIA (Custom Electronics Design and Installation Association) EXPO 2011. Around 18,000 people attended the event and more than 400 companies exhibited their latest products. This is the third year I am attending CEDIA EXPO and it gives me an opportunity to get a glimpse of future home technologies. There was a future technology pavilion setup by CEDIA showing each room of a future home. Then the training session on how technology is likely transform our lives in next five years was amazing.

Talking of future technologies, i recommend you watch this Youtube video, if one of the more than 15 million views this video had is not from you.

These are some of the highlights of the EXPO I noticed.
  1. 3D everywhere – Prices dropping and technology improving.
  2. Everything from the cloud. Content and control on internet. Days of spinning discs and local storage are numbered.
  3. Emphasize on green technologies – Energy saving, monitoring, recycling.
  4. i-device (iPhone, iPad or iTouch) to control everything in the home.
The last item above is the subject of this post.

Every company exhibiting any sort of control system had an iPad (or iPhone or iTouch) as a control device. I saw them in very expensive control systems (5 digit dollar amount for whole house automation) down to simple remote control of audio video equipmets in a single room which can be set up for less than hundred dollar.

Using iPad as a remote control is a cool feature. You can impress your friends. iPhone or iPad can be directly used as a remote control by attaching an IR emitter to the head phone output. This may cost you less than $100. I am not talking about this method. It is the most primitive technology to use your iPad as control. It needs line of sight IR path.

The solutions I liked use iPad (or iPhone or iTouch) as a user interface to communicate to a control device through home WiFi. This means you don't need to attach anything to your iPad and you can operate the device from anywhere in your house without the need for line of sight IR communication.

There are several advantages using an iPad as a user interface device for control.

  1. iPad is much cheaper than a hand held control unit form control system manufactures. These units always used to cost more than $1,000. If you already have an iPad, there is no additional investment.
  2. iPad is having bigger screen size, better resolution and brighter display than most home control units.
  3. Users are already familiar with the interface.
  4. Most of the remote control apps are free.
  5. The “wow” factor.

Then I attended a panel discussion by experts on “using smart phones and mobile devices for control”. Some of the limitations of using iPad as your only remote control became evident to me during this two hour discussion.

  1. If you do not have strong WiFi signal everywhere in the house, the experience can be frustrating. So the first thing to look at is your home wireless network and enhance it, if needed.
  2. When iPad goes to sleep mode, it can take few seconds to wake up before you can press that mute button.
  3. Your iPad automatically updated the operating system and your remote control app stops working. It may not happen with all the apps, but several users have faced this situation. Now you need to wait for days or weeks before a compatible version of the app is available. How will you control your theater during this period?
  4. When your friends arrive, you realize that you forgot to charge the iPad and its battery is fully drained. You cannot operate your theater.
  5. If you have Microsoft Communicator installed, you need to input password when iPad wakes up. Now imagine this situation – You are watching the movie at loud volume. The phone rings. You want to mute the sound before answering the call. With your old unimpressive remote control unit, just a simple press on “MUTE” button will do the job. Now with your new shiny iPad, let us see how you will do. You swipe on the screen. iPad wakes up and prompts for the password. Once this hurdle is over, you realize that the remote control app is not running. You locate the app and brings it up. Now press the “MUTE” button on the screen. Will your friends be impressed with what you just did? Is your girlfriend trying to reach you still at the other end of the line when you are finally able to answer the call? Are you not a making a simple thing too complicated?

So the verdict of the experts was unanimous. An iPad or iPhone should not be your only control device. After the “wow” factor wanes out, you are sure to face serious frustration. If you already have a reliable remote control system for operating your theater, make it more “cool” by adding iPad as a secondary control device.

I agree. Do you?

Saturday, July 16, 2011

LCD, LED or Plasma?

It is a tough choice to make when you are shopping for a new TV.

First let me clarify one thing. What you find labelled LED TVs are not usually LED TVs. They are not using light emitting diodes (LEDs) to generate the image. They are nothing but  glorified LCD TVs which use light emitting diodes for backlighting. In fact, they should be called LCD TVs with LED backlighting. Traditional LCD TVs uses CCF (Cold Cathode Fluorescent) lights for backlighting.

Among the three,  LED backlight TVs are the most expensive.

So if you are tight on budget, consider Plasma or LCD. Both are in the same price range. If your room is not overly bright while watching TV, consider a plasma TV which gives slightly  better image. Also the picture looks OK even if you move to the sides, away from the center. But plasma is bulkier, consumes more power and generate more heat. Their image gets a bit washed out if the room is too bright.

LCD TVs are more suited for bright rooms, with lot of ambient light. Their image does not get as much washed out as plasma. They perform better if you watch daytime TV and the room is having lot of windows and light seeping through them. One problem with LCD TV is that the image gets darker if you move from the center towards the side. It becomes almost unwatchable if your seat is too far from the center or you sit on a couch to the side of the TV. Also some of the LCD TVs exhibit image lag with fast moving objects.

If you are ready to spend few hundred dollars more, go for an LED lighted LCD TV (commonly known as LED TV). The technology has improved a lot during the past two years and some of the  LED TVs are comparable or better than plasma in image quality. Plus, they do not have the shortcomings of plasma TVs. They can produce bright punchy images and can be tweaked to produce accurate video. They could not match video quality of plasma in the past, but that is not the case now.

Even within LED TVs, there are variations, like back-lit, edge-lit, local dimming etc. I don't want to get into technical details of these variations.

Where to mount?

1. TV should not be facing a bright window.
2. It should be mounted at the eye level, with the center of the screen slightly above eye level.
3. The worst location to mount your new TV is above the fire place. It will look elegant there, like a picture frame. But you will end up with neck pain soon. Also the heat from the fireplace may result in early death for the sensitive electronics inside the TV.

Do some basic adjustments of the video. Do not leave it in Dynamic or Sports mode as it came out of the box. If it is having a Cinema or Movie mode, selecting it will give the most accurate image you can get without a professional calibration.

Enjoy your new HDTV!

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Five common mistakes to avoid in a home theater project

If you are building a home theater in your basement this summer, please pay attention to avoid these common mistakes.

1. Building the room with an incorrect length to width ratio
This can severely impact the room acoustics. A square room or 2:1 room will be an acoustic nightmare. Choose the ratio which can give the best acoustic performance.

2. Putting the door at the back of the room
This is OK if you have a long room with ample walking space behind the rear row of seats. Otherwise, it will rob valuable seating space.

3. Using a double door
This may look elegant, but sound insulation will be a challenge. With a single door, it is easier to get better sound insulation.

4. Selecting the wrong screen size
Having a huge screen, covering the entire width of the room may look impressive, but may not give you the best viewing experience. The screen size should be carefully calculated based on the room length, width, seating distance, type of video mostly watched, and projector light output.

5. Incorrect speaker placement
Most people these days go for 7.1 speaker system. If you do not place the speakers correctly, you will not get the proper surround effect. Ideally front center speaker should be at the same level as the left and right speakers. This is difficult with a TV. But if you are using a projector and screen, go for an acoustically transparent screen which will allow you to place the center speaker directly behind the screen.

Here is a piece of advice

Home theater can be a fun DIY (Do It Yourself) project. But to do it correctly, you will need a great amount of knowledge and will need to do a lot of research. Otherwise you may come up with faulty design, wrong equipment selection and incorrect set up. These are costly mistakes difficult to fix later. A modern home theater is a complex system which is beyond the knowledge and experience of most DIY homeowners. Due to this, it is wise to pay a professional to design, build and setup your dream theater.

Many people do the mistake of engaging a professional when it is too late. If the room is already finished, it is too late. There may be so many mistakes in the design which cannot be fixed. If the framing is done, but drywall is not installed, it is a slightly better situation. At least, the in-wall cabling can be done correctly.

The ideal time to engage a professional is at the planning stage before you finalize the layout of your basement.

If you decide to engage a professional, look for a company certified by CEDIA. A home theater is probably the largest investment in your dream home, so you wouldn't trust it to just any wire puller. Please watch this six minutes video ( to learn about the advantages of engaging a CEDIA member.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

For getting 3D, you don’t need a second mortgage.

In my last post, I predicted that the first generation 3D products will be very expensive.

I was wrong. First generation products from Panasonic and Samsung are available in stores for nearly a month now. You can get a 46” or 50” 3D 1080P TV, a 3D blu-ray player and two pairs of 3D glasses for around $3,000. 3D capable receivers (HDMI 1.4) are being launched for as low as $329.

With products from other manufacturers hitting the market, the prices will definitely drop and may drop significantly by the holiday season this year. So I will not be surprised if you are able to buy a 46” 3D TV for around $1,000 within two years.

Anybody planning to buy a new TV should seriously consider the 3D option or play the waiting game until the dust clears and the prices drop to much more affordable levels.

Personally, I will wait for at least a year before switching to 3D. By that time,
  • More content will be available in 3 D format.
  • Prices will be at least 40% lower than today’s levels.
  • Second or third generation products will be available with more maturity in technology, features and standards.
I will be attending a webinar on 3D TV tomorrow and will post another update.

Stay tuned….

Monday, February 22, 2010

3D is ready for your home. Are you ready?

Last September, I attended the annual CEDIA (Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association conference and expo in Atlanta .
Almost all major TV manufacturers and couple of projector manufacturers were demonstrating their prototypes of 3D products. A huge 103 inch 3D plasma TV from Panasonic and $55,000 3D projector from Digital Projection ( ) were attracting large crowds.
The demos were very impressive. Images were lifelike. Finally, full color full HD 3D is going to be a reality for consumers. Products are expected this spring and at least 50 titles of blu-ray movies are to be released soon.
Standards for 3D TV and blu-ray are being finalized. This time it is going to be a major change for the way we watch video at home. It may be the greatest thing to happen for home video since we switched from black & white to color. Even the switch from standard resolution video to HD video did not create such an impact.
While the manufacturers are praising this new standard, we have to wait and see how the consumers are reacting to it. There are several roadblocks to overcome before 3D becomes mainstream.
  1. Investment - You need new 3D capable equipments. New TVs, new blu-ray players etc. The initial models are not going to be cheap. Even if you can afford, are you willing to spend more money over what you have just spent for the latest flat screen TV?
  2. Lack of programming material - Initially, the availability of 3D programming material will be an issue. majority of material you will be watching will be still on 2D. Will you spend large amount of money for 10% of the material you watch? This will of course change when sports broadcasts switch to 3D HD and hundreds of blu-ray movie titles are available.
  3. New HDMI version - Full HD (1080P) 3D will need HDMI 1.4. This means all the receivers in the market today which supports HDMI 1.3 video switching and processing making them incompatible with the new 3D format. Do we have to get new receivers?
  4. Inconvenience - Wearing  3D glasses for long durations is certainly not comfortable. If you are already having glasses, you have to wear 3D glasses over them.
  5. Puppet show effect – The moment you wear the 3D glasses, our brain perceives the image as smaller in size. I could feel this even on the huge I-MAX screen while watching Avatar in 3D. Imagine watching 3D on a 46” TV. Except for real close up scenes, everything will appear like a puppet show. Over the years, our brains may get adjusted it to it. With early televisions, people might have experienced the same. Till then, they had seen video images only on a big screen in a dark theater. Now they are watching tiny images in a small box. Then we got used to it. Same thing may happen with 3D.
  6. Impact - For telling a good story, do you really need 3D? If the movie is bad, can 3D technology make it any better?  Except for science-fiction and action movies, sports events and nature documentaries,  will 3D significantly enhance viewers experience?
 Anyway, 3D is ready to enter your  home in 2010. But the question is “are you ready?”.  It may take several years before the format becomes mainstream. Till then, it may be a luxury available to a minority – the early adopters, and the filthy rich!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

End of blu-ray?

DVD was the most successful format ever created for storing and distributing video content. The number of discs sold, the number of players sold, and the number of titles available - all have broken previous records. DVD still continues to enjoy a large portion of market share.

The new format which emerged in 2006 to replaces DVDs - the blu-ray disc – had a rocky start. First, it had to fight with a competing format, HDDVD. Even though blu-ray won the battle, it still had a low acceptance rate among users. The players were expensive. (Can you believe that the first generation players were costing as much as $800 and was still primitive compared to today’s players). Discs were expensive and few titles were available. Many users were happy with DVD and did not feel the need to upgrade to the new format. Blu-ray discs are still expensive compared to DVDs. But the price for the players has come down. Today you can get a player for less than $100. Thousands of titles are available now. All new movie releases appear in both DVD and blu-ray formats. Sale of players and discs has increased significantly in the past year.

In spite of these successes, it is unlikely that blu-ray will achieve the same level of success DVD has enjoyed.

This is mainly due to the fact that the way video content is stored and consumed is changing fast. Online video services help you do away with storage medium. You can stream movies from Netflix today without ever having the physical disc. There are several other companies providing on-demand video through internet. Your satellite TV or cable TV provider lets you stream the movies from their servers through pay-per-view service.

Streaming video will be the direction in future for distribution of video. The content will be streamed to the customer’s display on demand. This completely eliminates the need for a physical medium on which the movie is recorded and distributed to the customer.

Digital media players I have discussed in an earlier blog will play an important role in this transformation. They provide the bridge between the content source and your high definition display. There are currently more than 65 models form different manufacturers available in this category. Quality and features of these products keep improving steadily. Surprisingly, they are very affordable today (most units between $100 and $300) and the prices will drop further when demand picks up. On the other hand, several manufacturers a are including basic capabilities for playing online digital content on their TVs and blu-ray players.

Video and audio standard used by blu-ray discs may continue to live as standards for storing high definition material. But the physical disc may become obsolete when internet becomes the main source for what you watch on your TV.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Is "home theater" a difficult term?

Last month I gave a speech on "home theater". My audience had little knowledge on this subject. So I tried to make it very simple without using technical jargon. The title of the speech itself was "home theaters" and I used the term at least a dozen times during the speech.

After the speech, several people talked to me appreciating my speech. Here are few samples.

"You made the dry topic of home entertainment systems very interesting."

"I wish I had  a movie room like yours."

"Your speech on your stereo system was nice."

"I am glad that my husband did not hear your speech. Otherwise he will build a media room like yours this weekend"

I was stunned. Entertainment system? stereo system? movie room? media room? I never used these terms in my speech - not even once.

This was not my first experience. Whenever I talk to people about my hobby of home theaters, many of them later refer to it as "media room" or "entertainment system".

Is "home theater" such a difficult term to remember? 

I don't understand.