INTERACT: Top 10 Mistakes in the Connected Home

Summer is in full swing, and a new generation of home-based and portable technologies is heading our way. We thought this would be a good time to reflect on some of the common mistakes we make when we integrate technology into our lives. As you peruse this list, we encourage you to think of any other mistakes you feel people are making as they integrate technology into their daily lives. What are some of the mistakes you've made in your consumer-electronics endeavors? Let us know, down there at the bottom of the page.

Here, then, is our list of the 10 biggest mistakes made in the connected home.

10. Forgetting to Stay Educated
An increasingly complicated array of technology is heading to homes, so it's more important than ever to stay up-to-date on what's happening, when the current standard will be replaced, and why certain technologies are better than others. For example, although you can find killer deals on 802.11b-based Wi-Fi technology today, that equipment is already out of date and less secure than speedier 802.11g equipment. Furthermore, 802.11g gear is dramatically less expensive than 802.11b gear was at this point in its life cycle, and it's often only pennies more than equivalent 802.11b gear today. Be sure to frequent sites such as Connected Home Media so that you can be educated before making any purchase. And heads-up to the spur-of-the-moment crowd: Being educated doesn't mean taking an instant poll of Best Buy employees when you step into the store. Do some work before you leave the house, and you'll never be hobbled by some overstock that a retail store is trying to offload.

9. Forgetting You're a Parent
Parental-control technology is available today for TV, Web browsing, online chatting, and other experiences in which youngsters can easily find themselves in adult territory. However, don't think of technology as a replacement for personal responsibility. You're still a parent, and that means you need to take an active interest in what your kids are doing online, and what they're watching on TV. It also means you need to spend some time talking with them, in person. That means no email or IM chats. Obviously.

8. Choosing Form Over Functionality
When polled, Americans looking for consumer electronics say they universally choose functionality over form, but that's not what really happens at the checkout counter. Consider the portable music player market: The beautiful but expensive Apple iPod, and its unobtainable (because of "supply issues") younger sibling, the iPod Mini, are all the rage these days. Why is that? In truth, the iPod players have problems that make them unsuitable for many users. They have mediocre battery life—often only 33 percent to 50 percent of the battery life boasted by such devices as the Dell DJ and Creative Nomad Touch. The iPod features a touchy set of buttons and dials that are too easily pressed, sending the currently playing song off to a digital void—a problem not in evidence on other players, which typically feature more reliable and less easily pressed mechanical buttons. The iPod is incompatible with one of the most popular digital audio formats in the world, Windows Media Audio (WMA), and is incompatible with every online music store on the planet—except, of course, for Apple's own iTunes Music Store. Finally, the iPod and iPod Mini are hugely expensive luxury items that often cost almost twice the price of comparable devices. As I write this, a 20GB iPod sells for $400, whereas the 20GB Dell DJ—which offers three times the battery life and is infinitely more compatible—costs just $230. Apple doesn't even sell a player for that price: Its 4GB iPod Mini is a whopping $250.

The point is that the iPod and iPod Mini have one thing going for them that the competition still hasn't picked up on: They're smaller and more attractive. Apple's style is certainly worth a premium, but is it really worth that much of a premium, especially when you discover the iPod's faults? And if style is that much of a concern for you, just grab a pair of white earbud headphones for that Dell DJ: You'll have saved about $150 and still look as cool as anyone else on the subway.

7. Assuming Wireless Can Do It All
People are embracing wireless technologies such as 802.11g at a rapid rate, but they're forgetting that wireless isn't a panacea. That is, despite the faster 54Mbps speeds of 802.11g—actually closer to 20Mbps to 23Mbps in real-world use—this technology still isn't fast enough to deliver advanced multimedia features such as streaming video or HDTV. However, if you understand its limitations and use wireless wisely— for example, for email, Web browsing, and music streaming—you won't be disappointed. Just don't assume that wireless is going to solve all your networking needs if you're building toward a truly connected home.

6. Putting Your PC in the Den
I've been using a Media Center PC in my den for over 2 years now, and if there's one thing I'm sure of, it's that PCs of any size, shape, or color don't belong in the den. Their loud fans, semi-regular crashes, and buggy software are much more at home in the office. That said, my love-hate relationship with my HP Media Center PC has also taught me another important lesson: I can't live without it. Its DVR feature has forever changed the ways my family watches TV.

Sadly, the happy medium is still a few months away: That's when Microsoft and its hardware partners will ship $250 Media Center Extender devices and a software add-on for the Xbox, both of which will let you consume Media Center content—such as live and recorded TV shows, Internet and live radio, videos, streaming music, and photo slideshows—remotely. And that means the Media Center PC will go back to the home office where it belongs. Besides, who wants to spend between $1000 and $3000 on what is essentially a $200 TiVo-like device? If you're looking for a good DVR solution and happen to need a new PC, the Media Center PC is a great choice. Just don't stick it on top of your TV.

5. Immersing Yourself in the Noise of Technology
You're beset by an unprecedented level of background noise, especially if you live in a big city or travel frequently by airplane. But don't shut out the outside world too drastically. Loud headphones or booming car stereos are a quick path to annoying and permanent conditions such as tinnitus or, worse yet, hearing loss. Be smart—and safe—about noise. For example, you might invest in noise-canceling headphones for travel, or simply buy a cheap set of earplugs. Or think about augmenting your work area with nicer background sounds, such as an environmental recording or some soothing New Age music.

4. Forgetting About the World
People caught up in the computer industry often work with computers all day, then go home and tinker with other computers until they go to sleep. Hey, it's great that you're into technology, but there's a whole world out there. Consider reading a book—a real book, not an eBook—and do so outside when possible. Take a class, go on a hike, or swim a few laps. It's the summer: Enjoy the outside while you can, and keep the troll-like activities to a minimum. Winter will be here before you know it, and you'll have plenty of time to turn to other activities. You know, likes skiing and sledding.

3. Blindly Buying the New Version Microsoft
You know the guy. Heck, you might even be that guy. He simply must have the latest and greatest device, and he doesn't mind spending top dollar to get it when it debuts. If it's not obvious already—and if you're married, we suspect your spouse has already clued you in—this behavior never pays off. Often, newer versions of products change in ways that aren't necessarily positive. (Microsoft's newer mice and keyboard products come instantly to mind.) Or newer versions might drop features that you find to be indispensable. In keeping with our education advice above, be sure to do some homework before you ditch a perfectly good electronic toy in favor of a shinier, newer model. And for heaven's sake, at least try to recoup some of the loss by selling the older products on eBay or a similar site. A little fiscal prudence can go a long way, particularly if you have a technology-averse spouse.

2. Overspending
Also in keeping with our education advice, be sure to shop around. Online sites often offer much better deals than retail establishments, although you'll want to keep an eye on shipping costs and watch the Sunday circulars for stores such as Best Buy, Circuit City, and CompUSA. If you absolutely don't have to get it today—right this very instant—online is almost always the way to go. Also, check out sites such as to find the best prices. But, however you intend to buy, shop around: You can save a ton of money.

1. Neglecting Security
As more and more homes connect to the Internet 24x7 via broadband connections such as cable, DSL, and satellite, and more and more of these people connect two or more PCs and other devices through home networks, security is becoming a huge concern. Allow us to offer a few basic bits of advice. First, don't ever connect a PC directly to a broadband connection; instead, use a hardware firewall/router and make sure that device's firmware is up-to-date. Use firewall, antivirus, and antispyware software on all your PCs. Consider shutting off the broadband connection at night or when it's not in use. Don't broadcast your wireless SSID, and use wireless security: WPA is best, but even WEP is better than nothing if you have only an 802.11b network. To help ensure that only your devices can use your network, consider MAC address filtering on a wireless network. And log on to your PCs and Macs with passwords, using a limited account rather than an administrator-level account, if possible. If any of this advice sounds overly technical, please refer to #10.

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