Hot Technology Trends for 2009

sharp flatpanel

A metallic edge around Sharp’s LC-65XS1U-S frame offers a stylish, sophisticated look, while a slim integrated speaker housing at the bottom provides audio.

Thin, compact designs inspire innovations in the home electronics industry.

Dec. 22, 2008 — by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

TVs are continuing to shrink around the middle. Last year, 4-inch-deep flat panels were all the rage. Now 1 inch or less is the new benchmark. All the big names are in the game, including Hitachi, JVC, LG, Mitsubishi, Pioneer, Samsung, Sharp and Sony.

Why the never-ending desire to get slim? Do we really need our TVs be skinnier than a deck of cards?

“Thin televisions offer consumers the combined benefits of choice, flexibility, elegance, aesthetics and performance,” says Daniel Lee, vice president of marketing for Hitachi Home Electronics America. “Consumers are now demanding thin and sleek sets to improve their homes’ aesthetics and create a space-saving design. They also want all the technology and rich features of a state-of-the-art display.”

Hitachi has answered consumers’ demands with a line of super-svelte LCD and plasma TVs. The company’s UltraThin 40-inch plasma display, for example, measures 1.5 inches in depth, about one-third the thickness of earlier plasma models. Following the trend, Sony’s 40-inch Bravia KLV-40ZX1M LCD high-def 1080p display is about as thick as a CD jewel case, while Sharp’s new furniture-friendly 52- and 65-inch Limited Edition Series Aquos LCD TVs measure 1 inch from front to back.

Mounts That Hug the Wall
The manufacture of increasingly trimmer TVs has led to other changes in the home electronics marketplace. TV mounts, in particular, have been redesigned. Just like the TVs they’re meant to hold, new flat-panel display mounts are thinner and engineered to sit closer to the wall. Mounts in OmniMount’s Ultra Low Profile Series, for example, protrude just 1.5 inches from the wall, affording flat-panel TVs a cleaner, more contemporary appearance in the home. Chief trims off even more excess with a mount that’s less than the width of a penny.

Of course, with so little space between the wall and display, it can be difficult to reach the back of the set when hooking up cabling. To make wiring a wall-hugging flat-panel TV easier, manufacturers have added new features to their products, such as “kickstands” that prop the bottom of the TV a few inches from the wall so you or your installer can access the cabling and connections. Other improvements include accommodations for accessories such as electrical outlets and surge suppressors. These products can now be recessed into the wall behind a TV, allowing the display to stay as close to the wall as possible. 

Another helpful addition, particularly for TVs over fireplaces, are motorized tilting mechanisms. When triggered, the mount’s internal motor tilts the display downward for a better viewing angle. Most motorized systems are designed to be engaged from a handheld remote. You push a button to tilt the set and press the button again to return it to the wall. It’s a simple enough solution, but be on the lookout for mounts that automate the process. The T2 mount from CLO Systems, for example, tilts an attached flat-panel TV to a preselected angle automatically when the TV is turned on. Turning off the TV triggers the mount to bring the TV back to its original position.

Lowboys Make a Comeback
Regardless of the shape or size of your TV, it’s going to require connections to satellite and cable box receivers, DVD players and other components. These additional pieces of hardware can compromise the aesthetics of a trim wall-mounted display. Thankfully, furniture manufacturers will offer a wide array of eye-pleasing storage solutions in 2009. The trendiest is the lowboy cabinet. A throwback from the 1960s and 70s, this short, wide storage unit is making a comeback. Unlike lowboys of the past, though, today’s models are significantly skinnier, just deep enough to hold a flat-panel TV.

This new profile has made them a space-saving alternative to the massive floor-to-ceiling entertainment cabinets that were popular in the ’80s and ’90s. Another good reason to consider a lowboy is that it places the set at eye level, says Art Powers of Madison Fielding, a manufacturer of entertainment cabinets and outdoor speakers.

Adding to the appeal of the lowboy are special accommodations for electronics equipment. Madison Fielding has designed a line of cabinets with speakers and subwoofers already built in. Furniture maker Peters-Revington, meanwhile, has partnered with AC power management manufacturer Panamax to incorporate a power conditioner into its home theater media cabinets. The M8-HT conditioner, which is mounted to the back side of the cabinet, cleans and filters noise on the AC powerlines, enabling the connected A/V equipment to perform optimally. Then there’s upscale furniture company Brownstone. For an additional $1,500, the company will attach a Monster Cable power conditioner and ventilation fans to its contemporary lowboy cabinets. Furniture manufacturers like Salamander Designs have also redesigned the rear panels of their cabinets to provide easier access to the equipment inside.

Blu-ray Breaks Free
Another force accelerating the development of new technology is Blu-ray. With more and more Blu-ray discs being released and satellite and cable providers increasing their number of high-def stations, the market is ripe for systems that can deliver HD content to not just one TV but to all TVs in the house.

You’ll have lots of choices in 2009 when it comes to buying an HD-compliant video distribution system. “The idea of having access to all of your content from anywhere in the home is the ultimate goal, and in today’s world, that content includes high def,” says Neal Manowitz, director of marketing at Sony. The A/V giant has nearly all the bases covered by offering several different HD setups. The simplest and least expensive ($2,000 to $2,500) are Sony’s two new ES series A/V receivers. In addition to supporting a 7.1 surround-sound system and providing 120 watts of amplification for a home theater, the receivers can stream HD video to a second zone via Category 5 data cabling.

Of course, most homes have more than two TVs, so Sony has also developed a system, the HomeShare HD ($1,000 to $2,000 per room), that can pass HD video to as many as four zones. The system can handle music, too, routing audio to a remaining 12 zones. Again, this system utilizes Cat 5 wiring, which gives consumers the flexibility to configure the setup in a number of different ways.

Reaching homeowners who want to both distribute high-def video and automate their home’s lights, thermostats, A/V equipment and other devices is Sony’s high-end NHS system. The NHS, which runs between $40,000 and $85,000 (price includes professional installation), has all the bells and whistles you’d expect for the price. Home control software from Control4 is built in, as is an HD switcher that can transmit HD content to as many as 12 zones (plus one home theater zone). For the home theater, the system incorporates a 7.1 surround-sound receiver, 400-disc DVD/CD changer, 160-GB music server, Blu-ray disc player, AM/FM/XM/Sirius radio tuner and iPod dock.

Crossing Over to HD
Companies like Sony represent a trend where firms that once focused on a single product category are crossing over into new areas of the home electronics market. In Sony’s case, the crossover was from entertainment into home control. While Sony stakes its claim in this new territory, many home control companies are starting to develop their own solutions for distributing high-def audio and video around the house. High-capacity, high-def video switchers are now part of the product portfolios at home control companies like Crestron, Savant and Vantage, to name a few.

The capabilities of the switchers range from Crestron’s Digital Media Switcher that can distribute content from eight high-def video sources to two TVs, to Savant’s beefy HD switch that passes 27 high-def sources to as many as 36 different areas in the house. In most cases, the switchers designed by home control companies are intended to be integrated with their core home control systems. This approach provides consumers with the tools to easily manage their media content as well as other electronics in the home, but it comes with a fairly high price tag.

Fortunately, there are lower-priced options. Recognizing that few people have 36 TVs and that consumers may not be willing to dole out big dollars for a complete home control system, Aton has developed a 4-zone HD router (expandable to 16 zones). Priced at $1,899, the HDR44 distributes four HD sources at up to 1080p to four TVs.

Now that there are plenty of solid systems for distributing HD, the next hurdle for manufacturers will be to design systems that can rip and store Blu-ray discs on the hard-disc drive of a media server. Some media servers promise to do this already. Inteset, for example, offers a 15-terabyte network attached storage (NAS) server for ripping and storing a huge assortment of entertainment, including Blu-ray movies. Media servers from VidaBox can be customized to offer any amount of storage capacity, and owner Steven Cheung recommends at least 4 TB for Blu-ray storage. Like Inteset’s solutions, servers from VidaBox can stream the media to multiple locations in the house. However, until copyright issues are ironed out, the software included with these systems can read only unencrypted Blu-ray discs.

Some companies are choosing to sidestep the technical and legal hurdles of storing Blu-ray content by creating servers that can enhance DVDs, play Blu-ray discs, or link with a 400-disc Blu-ray megachanger due to be released by Sony sometime next year.

For manufacturers like Escient, Kaleide-scape and ReQuest, the goal of upconverting DVDs stored digitally on the hard drive of a media server is to make them look as close to a high-def video source as possible. Kaleidescape product development director Linus Wong even goes so far as to say that the viewing experience of a DVD upscaled to a 1080p resolution will rival that of Blu-ray. It won’t be a bit-for-bit identical image, but the upscaling technology will certainly make your DVDs look great on a high-def 1080p TV.

Another way manufacturers are embracing Blu-ray is by building players directly into their media servers. Axonix, Fusion Research, Fuze Media Systems, Inteset and Niveus Media have all taken this course. “We started by building Blu-ray into our high-end servers last year,” says Niveus Media CEO Tim Cutting. “In 2009, it’ll be in all of our products.” Playback is only part of the picture, though. Some of the systems for 2009 will include technology that will scan the inserted Blu-ray disc to identify it and then retrieve a full profile of information—including cover art—to display on the screen of the TV.

Last but not least, there’s the 400-Blu-ray disc megachanger Sony plans to release. Unlike media servers that require content to be ripped and stored digitally onto a hard drive, the megachanger will physically hold each Blu-ray disc in your library. “Right now, there’s no way to legally pull a Blu-ray movie off a disc and store it on a hard drive,” says Sony’s Manowitz.

Of course, organizing and managing that many discs could be a real nightmare. Escient, for one, hopes to simplify the task by enabling the Sony changer to interface with the navigation software found on its Vision line of media navigation systems. Through the software, users will be able to categorize their movies by genre, artist or other classification to make finding a flick quick and easy. Escient provided a similar setup for Sony’s DVD changer that has been discontinued, so Escient is now focused on Sony’s new Blu-ray solution. “Our servers are ready and waiting for the Sony changer to come out,” says Marty Wachter, senior product manager at Escient.

Sony’s Blu-ray storage solution may not be available just yet, but the new year promises plenty of innovative products to get your home technology plans off to a great start. You’ll be able to get your flat-panel TV closer to the wall and share your Blu-ray discs with every TV in your home. Storage options for your audio and video content will be roomier than in years past, and new technologies will make it possible to enjoy all that media—in high def—from anywhere in the house.

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