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!