Connected Home 2007 Holiday Buying Guide, Part 1

Just like that, the holiday season is upon us once again. This year, I'm going to take a slightly different approach to my annual holiday buying guide, giving you fewer specific recommendations and more useful discussions about the technologies you’ll likely be considering this year. The result, I hope, will be a more valuable guide than a simple list of products, and one you can refer to again and again.

Top Gifts of the Year
First, I'd like to highlight two unique gifts that don't fall neatly into any specific product categories but are regardless my choices for the best holiday gifts of 2007. Why single out two products, you ask? Although the holiday season has been contorted into a frenzy of mindless consumer spending, it's also an opportunity to take stock and do things a bit differently. Neither of these gifts is particularly thrifty, but both have the potential to change the world, albeit in small and different ways.

Amazon Kindle
What It Is: A portable e-book reader with a free 3G wireless service
Pros: Highly portable; gorgeous and highly readable E-Ink screen; economical content options
Cons: Expensive up-front cost; no color option
Why You Want It: Come on, you know someone who doesn't read enough

At $399, Amazon's new e-book reader might seem a bit expensive, but consider how much more useful and powerful this device is than previous e-book solutions. In addition to its paperback-book form factor and gorgeous E-Ink screen technology, the Kindle is backed by Amazon's free Whispernet wireless service, which lets users browse and buy a collection of almost 100,000 electronic books, along with several national and international daily newspapers and magazines. The service uses 3G wireless technology to download new content as needed, so new magazine issues arrive each morning at 3am., for example, and are ready for your morning commute. What Amazon really got right, however, was the content: In addition to a massive library that dwarfs those offered by the competition, Amazon also prices content correctly. Best sellers are just $9.99, much less expensive than their paper counterparts, and other books typically cost even less. Newspaper and magazine subscriptions—unique to the Kindle, incidentally—are a bargain as well: While a monthly subscription to The New York Times runs over $40, you can get the same content delivered to your Kindle for just $12.99 per month. That's how electronics economics are supposed to work.

As for the device itself, the Kindle has been unfairly criticized for its utilitarian, button-heavy design. Don't be fooled: The Kindle is all about the reading experience. As is the case with a physical book, you’ll easily find yourself lost in whatever you're reading, which is how an e-book reader should work. My family has been using a Kindle for weeks now, and the only problem we've had is that everyone wants to use it so much. My wife and I have subscribed to a number of periodicals, which we enjoy over morning coffee, and we've both read several books on the device already. Even our nine-year-old son has gotten into the action, downloading an Encyclopedia Brown book for himself.

And heck, how can you quarrel with a device that promotes reading? In this age of the insular, headphone-wearing, Tinitus-suffering iPod nation, the Kindle is a throwback to a more intellectual form of entertainment. Highly recommended.

OLPC XO Laptop
What It Is: A small laptop specifically designed to help children become computer literate
Pros: You're doing the right thing, and it’s relatively inexpensive
Cons: Completely incompatible with any software you'd actually want to use
Why You Want It: It's chic and hip, and you can actually help make a difference

If you're geek-leaning and looking to make a difference in the world, look no further than the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) XO laptop, a portable computing device that's aimed at underprivileged children in developing countries. For a limited time only—the offer ends December 31—consumers in the United States and Canada can purchase an XO laptop for themselves and donate a second laptop to a deserving child. The total cost of this purchase is $399—half for the laptop you'll receive and half for the donation—and what you'll get in return, aside from the charitable donation itself, is an innovative and rugged little machine that small children should really get a kick out of.

The XO laptop is a cute little green laptop with rubberized keys, a small screen, rabbit-ear wireless antennas, and a new UI designed specifically to facilitate learning. Everything on the XO is open source, and although you won't be running Windows on this thing any time soon—let alone Windows applications—the onboard software includes a Web browser, a word processor, and other familiar tools.

If you aren’t interested in actually purchasing an XO laptop, think about donating one. Your donation is tax-deductable, and you can't beat the feel-good nature of such a gift.

HDTVs and Movies
HDTV is all the rage these days, and this year you have more economical and high-quality choices than ever before. Whereas an HDTV set might have been a luxury item just a few short years ago, today you'll have a hard time purchasing a non-HDTV set. With the major networks switching to all-digital and HDTV signals across the board, you're going to want an HDTV set to take advantage of the high-quality signals that are now being delivered via all cable, terrestrial, and satellite providers.

Getting Past the Technobabble
The problem with HDTV is that there's an alarming amount of technological know-how necessary to make the right buying decision. With that in mind, I'd like to highlight some terms and technologies you should be familiar with before heading off to the store.

First, let's talk about the technical aspects of the display. All HDTVs will support a subset of the full range of possible TV resolutions, which are rendered in a mix of progressive and interlaced methods. A progressive display is one in which the lines that make up the TV display are rendered all at once in sequence. This creates a steadier picture than an interlaced display, which is rendered in alternating lines. A set that supports a progressive display at a given resolution will also support an interlaced display at the same resolution, although the reverse isn’t true. Put simply, progressive is superior to interlaced: Progressive displays are flicker-free and visually steadier to the eye. Shoot for progressive over interlaced wherever possible.

HDTVs also support a range of resolutions, similar to the way computers do. These include the following:

Standard definition (SD) and enhanced definition (ED). Available in both progressive and interlaced versions, SD signals are often referred to as 480p and 480i, respectively. This resolution is considered DVD-quality; a typical DVD will display at a maximum resolution of 720x480 pixels. However, don't be too impressed by it. A typical DVD or other SD video source (like a non-HDTV television station) offers less than one-quarter the resolution and quality of the lowest-end HDTV display. ED sets exist in a weird middle ground between SD and true HDTV, offering 960x540 resolution; they should be avoided as the stop-gap solutions they are.

720p. This progressively displayed HDTV signal is currently the standard for HDTV television, offering excellent quality. The resolution is 1280x720.

1080i. Although offering a higher 1920x1080 resolution than 720p, 1080i is rendered in interlaced fashion and is thus often less enjoyable to watch than 720p signals. If your choice is between a 720p and 1080i set, the latter of which is increasingly less common, pick 720p.

1080p. The so-called "full HD" experience offers 1920x1080 resolution (like 1080i) but is progressively rendered, offering the best quality and a rock-solid picture. There is currently very little 1080p content available on TV, but new DVD-like disc formats such as Blu-ray and HD DVD both utilize this format, and the results are absolutely stunning. Currently, the combination of a 1080p display and a Blu-ray or HD DVD player is the best possible picture available on HDTV. It has to be seen to be believed.

Making the Connections
Another consideration is connections. Every HDTV will come with a certain number of connectors, by which you will connect the display to other devices, such as cable boxes, video game systems, disc players (DVD, Blu-ray, HD DVD), and so on. Connections are simple: The more the better. But you need to know what types of connections are available, and which are the most valuable. Here they are:

HDMI. Currently the top-of-the-line connection type, HDMI is all-digital and supports both audio and video through a single cable, so it's great for cable management and simplicity. HDMI also supports all SD and HDTV resolutions and formats, and it can work with up to 7.1 surround sound if you funnel it through the appropriate receiver. HDMI is the most desirable connection type on an HDTV.

Component. This connection type consists of multiple cables—blue, red, and green cables for video and red and white for audio. It supports all standard definition and HDTV resolutions and formats, and is thus on par with HDMI from a quality standpoint. The trade-off is cable management: A component-cable set is often a mess of similar-looking cables, and it's easy to make mistakes. That said, component is still a lot more common than HDMI and it's not unusual to find HDTV sets with multiple component connections. If you can't go HDMI, component is your next best bet.

VGA/computer. Some HDTV sets support a VGA-style connection, which you might be familiar with from the computer world. This analog connection type can often support up to 1080p, so it could be valuable option, but some set makers include lower-quality ports that offer only a subset of the available HDTV resolutions, so you'll need to check on a set-by-set basis. VGA is also video-only, so this connection type is usually accompanied by a pair of composite audio ports for sound. A digital version of VGA, called DVI, is rarely seen but is a possibility as well.

Composite/S-video. The old-fashioned RCA-style composite ports are useful for older devices such as VHS players but don’t support HDTV resolutions. These connection types include three cables: red and white for audio and yellow for video. Alternatively, a slightly better quality video connection called S-video is often available as well. S-video is better than straight composite, but not by much, and none of these connection types offer particularly high quality.

My recommendations here are simple: Get as many HDMI connections as possible. Component connections are almost equally valuable, although you'll have to deal with masses of wires. And composite connections will be viable for some time to come, thanks to the millions of existing consumer electronics devices out there that still use these outmoded connections.

Set Types
When you walk into a typical electronics retailer, the first thing you're confronted with is a wall or room full of different displays and display types, all spasmodically vying for your attention. With the assumption that the days of tube TVs are over, mostly because it's not economical to sell such sets at sizes over 36", we'll focus on the present and future here instead. In general, there are three types of HDTV displays to consider these days.

What It Is: A flat panel HDTV display
Pros: The largest HDTV sizes possible; best display quality
Cons: Can be incredibly expensive at large sizes; uses more power than LCD; burn-in still possible
Why You Want It: Plasma offers large screen sizes, deepest blacks, best contrast, and excellent viewing from any angle

Plasma is currently the top dog in the HDTV world, thanks to huge screen sizes, excellent picture quality, and wide viewing angles. Plasma displays, like LCDs, have proven to be incredibly reliable, and although the devices are heavy, they’re relatively flat and can be wall-mounted. On the other hand, plasmas expend more energy than LCDs and need ventilation: Expect to see a number of fans on the back of any plasma display, though you should never hear them in normal operation. Plasmas are typically sold in the 42"-to-50" range.

What It Is: A flat panel HDTV display
Pros: Thinner and lighter than plasma; no burn-in
Cons: Screen sizes are smaller than is possible with plasma; narrow viewing angle; often more expensive than plasma for larger screens; bright screens can lead to eye strain
Why You Want It: Typically lighter and more energy-efficient than plasma

When you look at HDTVs in an electronics store, don't be fooled by the often overly bright LCDs you'll see there: Although these displays might look impressive in the store, they can often lead to eye strain after prolonged viewing. That said, LCDs do offer some advantages over plasmas. They're often much less expensive at smaller sizes (although the reverse is true on the upper end of the size range) and weigh much less. LCDs offer a narrow viewing angle, however, and are best used in smaller rooms. Sizes range from 23"-to-42", typically.

Rear Projection
What It Is: A big-screen TV that offers lower prices but a larger form factor
Pros: Huge screen sizes; much less expensive than flat-panel displays
Cons: Sets are typically huge and take up much more space than flat-panel displays; viewing angle is narrow; bulbs need to be replaced periodically
Why You Want It: Best bang for the buck, especially if space isn't a concern

Available in sizes ranging from 50" to 65", rear-projection sets are your best bet when you absolutely need the biggest possible screen. The downside is that rear projection sets aren't flat-panel devices such as LCDs and plasmas, so you'll pay a bit in depth: Most rear-projection sets are a foot or two deep. You'll also need to periodically replace the set's display bulb, and viewing angels are narrow. Repair rates for rear projection sets are much higher than those for LCD and plasma.

Finally, pay attention to reviews. Consumer Reports is particularly valuable in this regard, as are CNET's admittedly repetitive but useful HDTV reviews.

Next-Generation DVD and Movies DVD sales have sailed along solidly for a decade, thanks to movie-industry back catalogs and the move to TV boxed sets in recent years, but this format is starting to show its age. As noted above, DVD movies top out at a 720 x 480 SD resolution and really can't do much to take advantage of modern HDTV displays. Fortunately, there are new HDTV disc formats available now that can do so, as well as various options for getting the most out of your existing DVD collection. You could also skip the next-generation DVD formats altogether and move directly to digital movies, although that's not quite viable here in late 2007. We'll get there.

Upconverting DVD Players
If you have an HDTV, one excellent and obvious upgrade is available to you: an upconverting DVD player. These devices, which typically cost well under $100, basically take the SD image from a DVD movie, de-interlace it, then scale it up to the native resolution of your HDTV. This process isn't magical—it can't turn an SD DVD into a true HDTV movie—but it usually does offer very real and noticeable improvements to the display of the movie.

Upconverting DVD players are available as standalone devices, but if you own a Microsoft Xbox 360 or a Sony PlayStation 3, you already own one: Both devices can upconvert standard DVDs to HDTV formats, although in my tests the Xbox 360 does a much better job. And that's the potential concern with upconverting: Not all upconverters work equally well.

High-Definition DVD
Sadly, the move to next-generation DVD formats is marked by some controversy: Rather than settle on a single standard, competing camps in the electronics industry are offering up two rival formats, Blu-ray and HD DVD, creating a format war the likes of which we haven't seen in two decades. There's no clear winner here, which makes both formats somewhat less interesting than DVD, but with rapidly dropping prices and excellent display quality, both are still compelling, especially for movie buffs. What could end this stalemate, of course, is a combo player that supports both formats, and those players are just appearing on the scene at high prices. Here's what's available and reasonably priced now:

What It Is: A high-definition DVD format
Pros: Stunning HD display up to 1080p; slick interactive menus; players are DVD-compatible; offers more storage than HD DVD
Cons: Players and content are currently expensive; incompatible with HD DVD
Why You Want It: Unclear

What It Is: A high-definition DVD format
Pros: Stunning HD display up to 1080p; slick interactive menus; players are DVD-compatible; currently a bit less expensive than Blu-ray
Cons: Incompatible with Blu-ray
Why You Want It: Unclear

Blu-ray players are currently quite expensive, with devices currently in the $500 range and up. Oddly, one of the most economical Blu-ray players is the $399 PlayStation 3 video game console; coupled with an optional $20 Sony remote, this nearly silent device is an ideal movie player. Blu-ray's biggest technical advantage over HD DVD is the capacity of its discs, which currently top out at about 50GB, compared with 30GB for HD DVD. However, this difference is unlikely to result in any real-world advantage for consumers.

Anything can happen, but Blu-ray players and discs are currently outselling those from the HD DVD camp by a wide margin. And Blu-ray seems to have better industry support than HD DVD—an important point for movie fans: Currently, 20th Century Fox, Disney, Lions Gate, MGM, Sony, and Warner Bros./New Line all support Blu-ray, whereas Dreamworks Animation, Paramount Pictures, Universal, and Warner Bros./New Line support HD DVD. Dreamworks Animation and Paramount recently announced that they would support HD DVD exclusively, if only for a limited time.

In HD DVD's defense, HD DVD hardware is considerably less expensive than Blu-ray, and with $200 devices on the market now, it's possible that this holiday season could see a switchover to HD DVD dominance. Only time will tell, but for now, one thing is certain: Neither format is a clear winner.

One final note: The Sony PlayStation 3 supports Blu-ray out of the box, as mentioned above. Xbox 360 owners can purchase a $150 external peripheral for playing HD DVD movies via that console. Because both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 offer HDMI-based 1080p output, these solutions are enticing to anyone interested in both video gaming and movie playback. However, the Xbox 360 has some serious advantages for digital content delivery, including the ability to download HD movies and TV shows via the Xbox Live service.

More Home Theater
If you're thinking about giving next-generation DVD formats another year, you're in good company. Fortunately, there are many other ways to enjoy high-quality home-theatre-style entertainment, including a number of set-top boxes that seek to bring your PC-based content into the living room.

Apple TV
What It Is: An HDTV front-end for your iTunes music, movie, and photo collections
Pros: Simple setup and use; small and elegant hardware; supports wired and wireless networking
Cons: Works only with Apple software and service; a bit expensive
Why You Want It: Your iTunes collection will never look or sound so good

The Apple TV ($299 and up) is a stylish and tiny set-top box that supports HDMI, component, and composite connections to your HDTV and drives resolutions up to 1080i. The Apple TV uses wireless (802.11b/g) or wired Ethernet networking technology to connect to iTunes back on a PC or Mac elsewhere in your home. You sync or stream content to the device, including photos, music, and videos, and the device natively supports iTunes-based movie previews and YouTube content as well.

Here's a secret: Although the Apple TV is a great solution, you can actually get much of the Apple TV's functionality with a modern iPod ($149 to $500), an Apple docking station ($29), an Apple remote control ($19), and a set of component video cables ($45). What you miss with this setup is the onscreen menus—you'll need to directly access the iPod interface to select content. But if you already have an iPod, this is an interesting solution. We'll look at iPods and other portable media players in part 2 of this guide.

Media Center Extender
What It Is: An HDTV-capable set-top box that brings the Vista Media Center experience into your den
Pros: Elegant UI; works with movie rental services and music subscription services
Cons: Can be expensive; requires a Vista-based Media Center PC; best feature requires a TV connection to the PC
Why You Want It: It's the ultimate PC-to-living-room device

Microsoft's hardware partners will soon unleash a variety of dedicated Media Center Extender devices, but as of this writing, the only one on the market is Microsoft's own Xbox 360, which features Media Center Extender functionality in addition to its normal video game playing capabilities. A Media Center Extender brings Vista's beautiful Media Center interface to your HDTV, over the network, allowing you to access live and recorded TV shows (assuming you've connected your PC to a TV source), digital music, photos, and videos, as well as online services that provide rented and purchased movies and TV shows, as well as subscription music services. This is the full meal deal, and while these solutions can still be a bit complex, it's the way to go if want it all (and aren't married to Apple's way of doing things.)

There are other digital media receivers available too, of course. Dedicated digital media receivers tend to offer weaker UIs than the Apple TV and Media Center Extenders, but they can often support more media formats. My satisfaction with such devices has been mixed, however, so be sure to research any device before buying. It's often impossible to improve the compatibility of these devices after the fact.

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