2012’s Biggest Tech Hits and Misses

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The home technologies that made it big … and not so big in 2012, and what you should expect to see in 2013.


Dec. 26, 2012 — by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

HITS

Soundbars

While TVs have been getting better and better in terms of picture quality and feature bulge, there’s a part of the TV that has actually gone backwards—the sound. It’s very difficult to build a great sounding audio system into a TV that’s only 1-inch thick. This problem hasn’t changed the fact that lots of people view speakers as eyesores. When eyesore relief started coming in the form of soundbars, they were largely considered compromise products. Many didn’t sound much better than the TV speakers they were replacing. Not anymore. Over the past year we’ve been impressed with the number of high-performance speaker companies to launch new soundbars.Atlantic Technology, Paradigm, Golden Ear, Leon, Bowers & Wilkins… this could be a long list. Some include subwoofers (even wireless ones) and are designed to replace a whole surround-sound system, while others are just meant to simplify your front speaker arrangement. These new soundbars aren’t just good-looking and easy to use—they sound great. What this says to us is that the soundbar market has matured from simply a budget and decor product to a true audio-enthusiast solution. Are multispeaker setups doomed? No. If you’ve got a dedicated home theater or a room that can accommodate them, a 5- or 7- speaker setup is the way to go, but in many situations, a soundbar is no longer a compromise.

Streaming

The audio dock is dead. Yep, we went there. But one part of the evolution theory states that when one niche is vacated, something else will come to fill its place (please don’t check me on the science. I was a humble English major). Anyway, this is what’s happened to the physical dock. No one wants to put their smart phone or tablet on a docking device anymore, because then it’s not available for other productive things like checking out Tumblr posts of kitten pictures. Apple replacing the old connector with the new Lightning connector was just another nail in the coffin. The dock’s replacement is local wireless streaming—Airplay, Bluetooth, DLNA and variants of that. Airplay is showing up in almost everything (except TVs, so far), and where it can’t be found, Bluetooth fills in as its lesser cousin. HTC’s Media Link is another technology that performs essentially the same functions—wireless media playback from a portable device. Sure, you may see physical docks stick around for a few years, but except for charging, there’s really no point to them anymore.


User-Friendly Automation

Run and managed by sophisticated microprocessors, home control systems are complex pieces of machinery. This fact hasn’t changed. What has changed is the ability for their essential programming software to be modified, adjusted and tweaked by you, the homeowner. No need to call in a professional to alter your control system’s EVENING command so the lights over the dining room table are a bit brighter. No appointment necessary to add a new FAVORITE CHANNEL button to your handheld remote. These are minor modifications you can make yourself, thanks to a movement among home control manufacturers to make their software friendly, simple and straightforward enough for most homeowners to understand and adjust on a whim. It’s a time-saver, a money-saver and puts the power back in your hands.


Lights Get Colorful

It’s possible to change the mood of a room by painting its walls a different color—and increasingly, people are doing the same but with lighting. Colored LED (light emitting diode) fixtures are starting to be incorporated into home theaters, living rooms, bedrooms and outdoor areas—just about any place that could use more ambiance. LED bulbs have been around for years, but utilized mostly in restaurants, retail establishments and other commercial venues. Like other technologies, they’ve trickled down into residential, and are having a huge impact on room design. People are thinking in color when adding lighting to a room, and manufacturers are responding by offering systems that enable colored LEDs to brighten and dim, change hues automatically, and become a part of the same lighting scenes as your ordinary incandescent lights.


Screen Innovation’s Black Diamond Zero Edge screen with LED lighting.


Flex Rooms

Why sequester a home theater to a room all by itself when it can share space with your living room, den or some other area you already use for other purposes? This is the question many people are asking themselves these days, and for good reason. It’s significantly less expensive to incorporate theater equipment into an existing space than to build a room from scratch, and an entertainment system will probably get used a lot more when located in a family room than hidden away in an isolated room in the basement, for example. It’s all about economy, practicality and usability when it comes to home theater these days, and manufacturers have stepped up to the plate by building screens, projectors and speakers that perform well in rooms where the lights are typically on or where there are many viewing areas.


Thermostats

Thank you, guys as Nest Labs. The retro/mod looking Nest Learning Thermostat has almost single-handedly made thermostats cool—for about the first time ever. And they should be cool because a good programmable, connected or smart thermostat can save you a bundle on energy costs. Not only does the Nest learn your habits so you don’t actually have to program the thermostat, it offers one-button iPod-like simplicity. There are plenty of other good and less expensive thermostats you can control with mobile apps as well.


Two-Channel Audio

Music listening is at an all-time high, now that songs can be downloaded with a click of a button and streamed to speakers throughout the house. Now that we’ve had time to savor the super accessibility of our digital tunes, it’s time we take our music listening to the next level. Although few people will ever give up their earbuds for pure convenience, we’ve come to understand that music sounds better when it’s played in analog, not digital—and this means outfitting your house with a two-channel stereo system, complete with a turntable, a digital-to-analog (DAC) converter, and big, powerful floorstanding speakers.

Apps for Home Control

If you have any kind of home control system that doesn’t offer an iPhone/iPad orAndroid app, then you need another home control system. There are apps today for motorized garage doors, automated irrigation systems, you name it. Even rudimentary home control systems from big service providers like ADTand Comcast and do-it-yourself systems using wireless technologies like Z-Wave to unlock doors and operate thermostats are operable by mobile apps. And the app is a big selling point. Why? It’s far easier and cheaper to use a smartphone or tablet than operate an expensive, dedicated touchpanel. Plus, we love our iToys!


MISSES

Hard-buttoned Remotes

A bevy of buttons clustered on a handheld remote … yuck. Who wants to do all that key tapping when you can swipe and pinch your way through your channel guide? The days of hard-buttoned remotes are coming to an end, as more and more clickers are incorporating interactive touchpanels for control over every piece of A/V gear—plus maybe even the lights and thermostats.

Dedicated Home Control Touchpanels

Speaking of touchpanels, these cool, sleek displays commonly used to command the lights, thermostats and other electronic gear in your home are also going by the wayside, replaced by… you guessed it … the iPhone, iPad and other touchy-feely mobile devices. There’s almost nothing these portable devices can’t do when loaded with the right apps. For the price of an iPad and a (sometimes free) app, you’re on complete control of your home — something that used to cost well over $500 to do with a dedicated home control touchpanel.

3D TV

We hate to bully 3D around, but it’s such an easy target. It came into the world with such promise and so many publicity campaigns, but consumers have greeted it with a sideways look and a shrug. From people being convinced that stereo imaging gives them brain tumors to simply being annoyed at the glasses, there are too many reasons for TV viewers to not want to bother. It’s true; prices for the sets have come down dramatically. You really can’t buy a non-3D TV unless you’re shopping for a budget 32-inch model. The bigger problem is that movie studios haven’t kept up their end of the bargain by offering 3D versions of movies we all want to watch.

Smart Appliances

Every year we wonder if smart appliances will make out of their test beds, and they don’t. Oh, there are a few connected and kind of smart appliances out there from LG, Samsung, GE, Wolf and Sub-Zero, but for smart appliances to truly take off and be able to cut their energy usage automatically, they need to be connected to a smart grid—and that’s still in development. We’re hoping that Smart Energy Protocol (SEP) 2.0, which should be finalized this year and makes it possible for utility data to be sent from a smart meter over a home’s network, will help spur rollouts of both the smart grid and smart appliances.

What’s in Store for 2013

• THE CLOUD. You may already be experimenting with cloud services, but next year we expect an increasing number of home electronics manufacturers to enable their products to be programmed, updated and managed via the cloud. You’ll need fewer and fewer hard drives at your house, as all your important information will be stored in a virtual locker where you can get at it anywhere, anytime. Read: The Future of Movie Servers and Services

• GESTURE & VOICE CONTROL. What once was considered a gimmick is making some real headway in the home. We’ve already seen TVs that can be operated via voice and gestures, and manufacturers of home control system are starting to add this functionality, too. Creative custom electronics (CE) professionals have even figured out a way to utilize the iPhone Siri app as a way to control a home’s lights,A/V equipment and other gear. 2013 might be the year command via voice and gesture finally starts to get real.

• OLED TVS. OLED TVs and the few variants of the technology are going to be exciting to look for in 2013. In 2012 we were teased with a few prototypes that made videophiles drool. The perfect black levels and vibrant colors looked better than real life. Plus, the TVs are as thin as comic books. In 2013 expect to see more actual shipping models and larger sizes. Just don’t expect them to be priced less than a compact car. Read Understanding OLED TV.

• 4K. Where 3D failed, 4K has a real chance of catching on, and based on the prototypes shown at the fall CEATEC expo in Japan, there will be many more options from which to choose. Already Sony and LG have 4K TVs for sale. Sharp, Toshiba, Samsung and Panasonic can’t be far behind. 4K displays will allow you to put a larger screen in a smaller room, and who doesn’t want that? The format should also be a boon for 3D because you can have full 1080p for each eye with passive polarized glass. Just don’t hold your breath for 4K content.
Read our review of the very first 4K TV here.

• WIRELESS HDMI. Who needs pesky wires when you can do it wirelessly? This year we started to see more and more wireless HDMI products like those from Belkin, DVDO, Gefen, Knoll Systems and others, some of which operate in the 5GHz spectrum rather than the crowded and interference-prone 2.4GHz zone. And with OLED TVs that are millimeters thin, there may not even be room for video inputs. Wireless HDMI that can deliver 1080p to your screen is the answer. It’s already here, it works, and we’re bound to see more and more of it.



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