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February 6, 2011

When a Surge Protector isn’t a Surge Protector

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 7:44 am

So, you bought your new [fill in your favorite new, fancy, expensive electronic device], and plugged it into the wall.  But, not before buying a $12 surge protector from CVS.  Well, there may be a problem here, and it’s possibly not what you think.

A $12 surge protector can actually save your precious new $1,200 device from a variety of electric surges.  However, it needs to be a surge protector and not just a power strip.

What’s the difference? A power strip is nothing more than a splitter that distributes AC power to many different devices.  Surge protectors generally perform that function, but ALSO have components that can absorb or redirect an electrical surge – instead of your components doing so.

How can you tell? First of all, surge protectors generally say “surge protector” on the packaging and power strips generally say “power strip” on the packaging.  Another clue is to look for a Joule rating.  This refers to how much electrical energy can be absorbed before the unit blows.  Surge protectors have them.  Power strips don’t.  The higher the Joule rating the better.  Look for 500-1000 or more.

So, here it is in black and white:

GOODhttp://www.amazon.com/Tripp-Lite-SUPER7-7-Outlet-Protector/dp/B00006B828/ref=sr_1_3?s=electronics&ie=UTF8&qid=1297003715&sr=1-3

BAD: http://www.amazon.com/Fellowes-99000-6outlet-Power-Platinum/dp/B00006B8JX/ref=sr_1_3?s=electronics&ie=UTF8&qid=1297002855&sr=1-3

And, yes, CVS sells both surge protectors and power strips.  So, look carefully and choose wisely, or your new Apple may get baked.

November 6, 2010

Off into the Sunset

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 12:12 pm

If you’re the type to read Engadget, you’ve probably heard of the “Analog Sunset.”  If not, you probably think it’s what used to happen at night before the Internet was invented by Al Gore.  Either way, it has implications on your next Blu-ray purchase that you might want to know about.

Effective January 1, 2011, new limitations will be introduced on Blu-ray disks and players that prevent you from watching content in it’s full HD glory. 

Will this affect you?   To find out, just look back.  Rather, look in the back of your Blu-ray player.  If it connects to your home theater through the “component video” instead of through the HDMI output, then it well may.  What will happen is this:

You’ll get a newly released Blu-ray disk that will contain a special “constraint token.”  This token will prevent your BD player from outputting the content in all its HD glory through the component video port.

What are they doing this?  And who be they!?

They are doing it because the component video output is analog and does not have any digital copyright protection built in.  They are the AACS licensing authority comprised signficantly by the studios who wish to protect their goodies from unlawful copying.

So, where does that leave you?  Don’t panic just yet.  Most likely, if you’ve invested in recent televisions and other A/V equipment, you can just unplug your component cable and swap it out for HDMI.  And, if not, then you probably don’t care that some of your new content will look, well, the way it looked on the old system you still have.

November 28, 2009

Ahh, the good new days

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 9:10 pm

Have you had that talk with your kids, yet?  You know, the one where you explain that there was a time on earth when everyone didn’t walk around with their own, personal, untethered communication device?  Ah, the things we take for granted.  While arguably not quite so life changing as cell phones, here are three more technologies coming your way that you may one day wonder how you ever went without.

Automated Door Locks

What is it: Door locks for your home that function just like your current ones, except they also can be controlled through any number of “automated” options, including a cell phone or Web browser.  The state of the device (i.e. locked/unlocked) can also be monitored.

Why get it: Putting your door lock “on the grid” opens up any number of possibilities from pushing one button at night to alarm your security and lock the doors to remotely unlocking your home while on vacation so your neighbor can water your plant.  Also pretty handy when you or your spouse gets locked out (assuming it’s accidental.)

Buying details: You’ll need both an automated lock and a “controller”, which you can get in a package for around $500.  Of course, if you already have a home controller solution (such as Control4) for lighting, etc., you can just purchase a compatable lock.  Contact your local home technology integrator for more information.

3D Television

What is it: Pretty much the same as a 3D movie experience, except right in your living room.   The first crop of these devices will require those special glasses, though eventually models are expected to work sans personal wear.  These units will function as normal 2D TVs for normal programming, but – similar to high definition broadcasts – will exhibit their extra powers when paired with properly endowed programming content.

Why get it: If you like the experience in the theaters, why not get it for your home?

Buying details: 3D televisions are expected to arrive in 2010 from major manufactuers at only a slight premium over the current crop of 2D units.

Elderly Monitoring

What is it: A system of electronic sensors that allows you to monitor activities of your aging loved ones from afar and alert you to any changes in normal behavior.  Picture getting a text message when an aging parent hasn’t gotten out of bed as expected, or perhaps just missed taking their morning medicine.

Why get it: Enhance elderly care and your own peace of mind without the hassle to your loved ones or yourself.

Buying details: Basic systems start a little under $1,000 and can be purchased through your local integrator.

September 25, 2009

Two is company. 5.1 is a party in your ears.

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 1:19 am

So, you plopped down a grand – maybe even two or more – and now you’re watching your favorite shows on that big, beautiful flat screen TV.  What could possibly be better?  Well, if you’re using the two measly speakers that likely came with that set, the answer is simple: the sound.

What can you do about it?  Consider investing in a 5.1 channel sound system.

WHAT IS IT?

Instead of using your TV’s built in stereo amplifier and stereo speakers, a 5.1 channel sound system typically uses an external multi-channel amplifier and an array of six separate speakers.  Five of these speakers are deployed in a sort of circle (three in front of you and two behind you.)  The remaining speaker (i.e. the “.1” in “5.1”)  has the sole mission in life of producing those deep, rich low frequency sounds that fill a room and resonate in your belly.  (You probably have also heard of 6.1, 7.1 and so on.  As you can guess, these are just like 5.1, except with even more discrete channels and speakers to play them through.)

WHY GET IT?

The most obvious benefit of 5.1 sound is the immersive experience that results from having five discrete sound sources all around you.  (Trust me, the first time you hear a bullet ricochet in your 5.1 outfitted TV room, you will indeed hit the deck.)  Of equal importance, however, is the simple fact that the range and quality of sound that a typical 5.1 system can produce far outperforms those little guys typically slapped on to the sides of a television.  This is particularly so when considering the richness and depth afforded by the sub-woofer.  Even tuning in the news can be far more pleasing – after all, there’s a reason those anchors have velvety smooth pipes.

WHAT DO YOU NEED FOR IT?

(This part starts to get a bit techie.  If you’re more into the experience than the details, skim this section and skip to “HOW MUCH DOES IT COST?”)

In order to experience true multi-channel sound, you need three things:

1. A multi-channel source.  This is a piece you probably already have.  Nearly all DVDs and most digital television sources (including cable and satellite) qualify.  Now, not every program on every channel will arrive with a multi-channel sound track.  But, keep in mind that even stereo programs sound SOOO much fuller when played through a dedicated receiver and 5.1 speaker system.

2. A multi-channel receiver.  Something has to provide power to all those speakers, right?  That’s where this dude comes in.  It’s also the job of the receiver to “decode” the digital signal that carries the multi-channel sound and break it out to the six separate speakers.   That’s where terms like Dolby Digital and DTS come in.  These are the various technologies used to perform the sound encoding that your receiver ultimately must decode for playback.  There are many variations of DD and DTS, and high end receivers ship with an alphabet soup of support for them.  For a basic 5.1 setup, you don’t really need to sweat this – as long as your receiver can decode Dolby Digital and DTS you should be good.

3. A set of multi-channel speakers.   This would include three front speakers (front-left, front-center and front-right), two rear speakers (rear-left and rear-right) and the one sub-woofer.

HOW MUCH DOES IT COST?

As always, that depends on the quality of the experience you seek.  Here are some options to get you started:

  • Entry Level: You can purchase a multi-channel receiver and speaker set in a bundle (often called Home Theater in a Box, or HTIB) for as little as $200 or $300.  (Amazon search: HTIB)
  • Up A Notch: For more accurate sound, expect to spend at least $200 just for the receiver (Amazon search: AV Receiver), and then $300 or more for the 5.1 speaker set (Amazon search: 5.1 speakers.)
  • To the Max: If you have the budget, a high end speaker set or even individual speakers can truly bring the movie theater experience to your home – expect to pay $1,000 or more.  For this type of purchase, consider contacting your local integrator to ensure the right fit and installation.

What’s that, you say?  Your spouse will not approve of all those speaker wires running around your living room?  The ideal solution would be running them through walls.  But, if you don’t have that luxury, have a look at the variety of wireless speaker options.

July 26, 2009

Getting your TV on the Web

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 5:30 pm

Ah, there’s nothing like sinking into your comfy sofa with remote in hand and watching your favorite show on that giant flat screen television.  Problem is that to an ever increasing extent, the content you want to watch isn’t on your TV – it’s on your PC.  Whether you’re streaming the latest movies from Amazon, getting your favorite programs from hulu.com, surfing the potpourri of content from youtube.com or watching home videos from your own harddrive, viewing online content typically means huddling over the cruddy monitor on your computer.
 
However, it doesn’t have to.  Many products are now available that can bring that online content right to your living room television.  They are called digital media receivers (DMR’s for short), and despite this somewhat techy nine syllable name they’re actually quite simple to install and use.

THE BASICS
 
In principle, DMR’s are very similar to that cable or satellite set-top box you’re already familiar with.  One side connects to your Internet router so it can access the content and the other directly to your TV or entertainment system.  You select what you want to watch using a remote and assisted by a menu of options that you can display on your TV screen.
 
THE OPTIONS
 
While eventually it is reasonable to expect that nearly all DMR’s will support nearly all content sources, until the dust settles on certain technical and business issues related to file formats and digital rights management there are choices to be made and trade-offs to be had.  The main choice you have to make is which source of online content you are most interested in.  Here are the main options:
 
1. Content from your own computer: If you’re the kind of person who likes to download video content from the Web, copy your DVD’s to your harddrive, or otherwise build up a digital library of video on storage within your home, you’ll want a DMR with support for many file types and the ability to stream media from a share on your PC (or NAS.)
 
2. Movies on demand: If what you want is to use on demand subscription movie services like Netflix, Amazon or Vudu, you’ll need a special breed of DMR.  Because of the need for tighter content control (and other related factors), access to these services is generally limited to select products where special relationships with the manufacturers are in place.  (In the case of Vudu, the content provider and DMR vendor are one and the same.)
 
3. Miscellaneous Web sites: If it’s particularly important for you to access videos from a specific Web site (i.e. youtube.com, hulu.com, etc.), be sure to select a DMR that explicitly states support for that site.
 
Aside from this content source issue, you should also consider whether you need wi-fi support.  If you can’t run an Ethernet cable from your TV (or entertainment center) to your Internet router, it’s a good bet you do.
 
THE PURCHASE
 
So, how do you get one and what does it cost?
 
Most DMR’s cost around $200 and they all can be purchased online. While the choice of product and options can be overwhelming, this simple approach should get you going pretty far pretty fast:
 
1. Decide which of the above 3 content options is most important to you.
 
2a. If content on your own computer is most important, this link will provide you with a rundown of which products to consider. (BONUS: if you already have a PS3, you already have a DMR!)
 
b. If movies on the demand is most important, checkout the products and movie offerings for Netflix, Amazon or Vudu, as well as this comparison with Apple TV for movies.
 c. If you want support for a specific Web site, go to google and search for “digital media receiver WWW.ABC.COM“, replacing WWW.ABC.COM with the popular Web site you want support for.
(APPLE LOVERS: If you want youtube.com AND you’re an Apple kind of person, the Apple TV is a good bet.)
 
One final note.  The AV Science forum (www.avsforum.com) is a great resources where you can ask any question to a dedicated community of AV enthusiasts.  They even have a section dedicated to DMR’s and like devices.  Just be sure that before posting a question, you search the forum to see if it’s already been answered.  The community can be touchy about that sort of thing.

July 6, 2009

Organize your technology and live longer

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 5:04 pm

OK, maybe you won’t live longer, per se, but you will have more time to enjoy yourself.   In practically every area of life, being organized can help you be more efficient and save you all kinds of time.  The irony, of course, is that you often can’t find that initial time needed to get yourself organized.  From my experience, this couldn’t be more true when it comes to managing the swirl of account information, product manuals, configuration information, disks, etc. that comes with all of your home technology.

Think for a moment about how nice it would be to get that mess under control.  Are you ready to make it happen?  The hardest part is getting started. Try these three easy steps:

A. Choose a Technology Central: pick exactly one area in your house to serve as the central storage point for all information and material related to your home technology.   In the future, whether you need to remember the password for your home router, find the CD’s to reinstall the operating system on your computer, or dig out the product manual for your thermostat, you know you’ll find it in Technology Central.  The room you need will of course vary greatly based on the size of your home and number of types of devices you own.  Try to be generous when apportioned space.

B. Sort Smart: the material you need to store comes in all shapes and sizes.  As such, you’ll need to sort it based on what kind of storage mechanism is most suitable.  For example, consider using these four types of storage:

1. Loose Leaf Notebook: I have exactly one 4″ loose leafe notebook where I store every configuration detail of my home network (including the password of my router, the mail settings of my ISP,  the type of ink cartridge I need for my printer, etc.), service records for any support calls or repairs (including product serial numbers and support tag id’s), and any other information required to track and manage my devices.  I also use CD storage binders to hold miscellaneous media that doesn’t readily belong in product boxes, such as the latest backup of important files.

2. Product Boxes:  There are exactly two reasons I can think of NOT to keep the original box that came with your device: 1) it’s just too big for the storage area you’ve allocated, or 2) the device is easy and inexpensive enough to replace that you’re more likely to buy a new one before getting involved with a configuration or troubleshooting fuss.  Even if the box will be entirely empty except for one disk, it can be just that much easier to find that disk when you need it.  Plus, you’ll have confidence that you can easily locate everything that shipped with the unit.  You might want to store these boxes on open shelving (rather than within draws), for easy browsing and access.  Within them, you’ll know you can find all of the original support material that came with your device.

3. Store-bought Storage Boxes: For those cases where original product box is too large to keep, there is an endless assortment of storage boxes you can buy retail to store just the essentials for the device.  Used in conjunction with clear, resealable plastic baggies, these will make a great home for the manuals, CD’s, purchase receipts, etc. you’ll possibly/likely need some day.  You can even store the extra cables, screws, etc. in these boxes, just as you would store them in the original product boxes.   (Though, I would suggest storing cables and such that are general purpose in the storage drawers, since they may come in handy for other devices.)

TIP: Group all manuals, CD’s, etc. for each home computer together and store them in a clear, resealable plastic bags.  Then, throw those bags in the same storage container.  You’ll never again sort through piles of junk

4. Storage Drawers: Whether stackable, rollable, built in, or what have you, storage drawers are the work horse of organization for cables, batteries, tools, etc.  Just like the overall storage area for technology, you can’t just throw your items into any old mix of draws and call it a day – you need to plan what draws will hold which items, and then arrange for neat storage within those draws.  For example, try separate drawers for AC power cords, networking cables, A/V cables, etc.  Then, be sure to use cable ties to properly bundle cables so they don’t tangle and are easy to find and remove.

C. Label, label, label!: Invest in an inexpensive label maker, and make sure every notebook, box and drawer is adequately labeled.

OK, easier said than done, but don’t get lazy about this.  Remember, the hardest part is starting and the second hardest part is getting back on track once you’ve been lax.  There is a real joy in being able to find things right when you need them, and of course the time and frustration you spare yourself in being organized is invaluable. 

The next time you buy a product (or just need to find some product material you already have), why not take advantage of that opportunity to get your home technology organized and under control.  I can’t promise you’ll have fun doing it, but I can bet you’ll be glad you did!

June 2, 2009

The ABC’s of Whole Home AV

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 1:31 pm

Nearly every home in America has some form of AV – or audio/video – equipment.  In fact, the average home tallies up more than a half dozen AV components when counting only TV’s, radios and computers.   We sure love our music and movies!

Despite the pleasure these increasingly digital devices afford us, they come with their head aches, including  remote control chaos and media everywhere but where you want it.  Whole home control technology aims to address these ailments.  Here how:

A. Remote Possibilities– Say you’re taking in the evening news on cable when your kids suggest checking out that new DVD you brought home.  While your separate components for cable programming, DVDs, source selection and large screen viewing make for great quality and flexibility, the gotcha now gets ya when you need to pick up and punch on so many remotes to accommodate your kiddies simple request.  By putting a “central brain” between a single remote and these various components,   it now becomes possible to press one button on that remote and leave it to this central controller to handle the switching details required to achieve DVD viewing mode.  Heck, you can even pre-program this controller to dim the lights, drop the shades and turn off the ringer on your phone as part of the transaction.

B. Media Management Madness– You know the drill.  You want to play that new catchy tune you just downloaded last night.  It’s on your notebook computer.  You’re not.   Or, maybe you want to watch a DVD but aren’t sure which one.  Don’t you wish you could browse the cover art right there on your large TV without leaving your comfy couch?  Whole home technology approaches these issues and opportunities in a couple of ways.  First, a central storage device is deployed that captures all media from all devices and can be accessed from any media player (i.e. TV, receiver, PC, etc.) in your home.  Second, a relatively simple and inexpensive device called a Digital Media Renderer turns these files into a virtual “jukebox”, allowing you to browse them by artist, title – however you please, really, and right on your TV set if you wish.

C. Divine Distribution – Suppose you want to begin watching a movie in your workout room, but want finish it in the family or bedroom.  Or, maybe pump those tunes from the downstairs entertainment center to your outdoor porch.  A basic tenant of whole home A/V is that you can watch or listen to whatever you want, wherever you want, whenever you want.   The workhorse of  A/V source distribution is the “matrix switch.”  It’s kind of like your AV receiver, except it can have many different output zones – even 16 or more – and any source fed into the switch can be routed to any one of these zones.

Of course, there’s more to whole home A/V than simplified remote control, enhanced media management and source distribution, but getting your head around these three areas will give you a solid start when considering the sort of applications and benefits you might want to pursue.

May 5, 2009

Why whole home control? Why now?

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 3:42 pm

Whole home control – also called whole home automation – has actually been around for several decades.  For most of this time, however, it has been the province only of very high end residences and very dedicated do-it-yourselfers. 

Recently, this has been changing in a most dramatic way due primarily to three factors.

1. The Walls are Coming Down – Well, more accurately, the walls no longer have to come down in order to install most home automation applications.  In the past, reliable control of lighting, thermostats, etc., required dedicated wiring to be run throughout the home, and unless this was done during initial construction that meant tearing up walls.  New technology to the rescue.  Recent advances such as low cost wireless devices now provide an alternative to the much more expensive and intrusive dedicated wiring.

2. Moore for Less – A well known phenomena referred to as Moore’s law describes how computing hardware improvements double the power of inexpensive computers every two years or so.  Put otherwise, the same power hardware becomes significantly less expensive over time.  As a result, the basic level of computing hardware required to support most home automation applications is now far less expensive than in the past.  In fact, anyone who has purchased a home PCs with dedicated Internet access will probably find entry level home automation within reach.

3. The Web We Weave – The Internet and its Web of standardized content have been embraced by the masses in a permanent and life changing way.  Along with the many new habits for consuming information, socially interacting, and pursuing entertainment, we’ve come to see a whole slew of devices enter our lives.  PCs, notebooks, smart phones, NAS’s, DVR’s, PVR’s, PMP’s – the list goes on and on.  The prevalence of these devices not only drives the need for better device integration and control, but in fact lowers the incremental cost required to implement a whole home control solution that can do just that.  For example, that same iPhone you’re using for a zillion applications can also act as the user interface for your whole home control solution – replacing what previously would have been a multi-thousand dollar  investment in “touch screen controllers.”

Certainly, there are many other factors that are currently at play and will continue to influence the landscape.  But, these three are what we at Whole Home Control find to be the most inspiring and enabling when it comes to providing you with home technology solutions that maximize comfort, convenience, security and efficiency at unprecidented price levels.