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Home technology gets easier, and cheaper, to use

Home technology gets easier, and cheaper, to use
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First Published: Thu, Jun 03 2010. 09 13 PM IST
Updated: Thu, Jun 03 2010. 09 13 PM IST
Once upon a time, when big, boxy tube television sets roamed the earth, anything related to home entertainment technology was so complicated and costly that many mere humans were cowed into a state of terrified indecision.
Sounds like you? If so, you can come out of the cave now.
While early innovations were as soul-crushingly complex as they were technologically impressive, many home gadgets have long since been simplified and refined. What used to require a degree in electrical engineering to install and operate in many cases now demands only the ability to read.
Call it the advantage of being a late adopter. Instead of grappling with unfamiliar (and, sometimes, underdeveloped) technologies as soon as they appear on the scene, the late adopter lets more eager gadget fans work out the kinks until simpler versions reach the market. Pat yourself on the back for having the foresight to procrastinate.
With a minimum of effort—and considerably less expense than if you were using first-generation products—you can effect a basic tech makeover.
Your game plan for this project is simplicity. Tech products should be about as complicated as a toaster: just a few dials and a two-minute learning curve, owner's manual optional. There may be cheaper ways to upgrade your audio, video and photo-viewing systems, but technology that is easy to use is worth the price.
Start with a few basics: broadband Internet and a Wi-Fi network are essential; an iPhone or iPod will come in handy. With these in place, you can make three simple changes that should take less than a weekend to accomplish and will catapult your home into the digital age.
Get your music anywhere
You have CDs, yes? Do you have all of them transferred onto your computer? No? You need to do that first.
This process, usually called ripping, requires only a computer loaded with software such as Apple’s iTunes (a free download) and a bit of time. Simply feed CDs to the computer and iTunes will automatically rip each disc in a matter of minutes. In the end, you'll have an organized library of music that can be played by artist, album and track title, genre and other parameters. Every track can be found instantly, unlike those in your scattershot CD collection.
This will obviously take some time if you have a lot of CDs to transfer. Bulk-ripping services are available, but they charge more than it's worth. Add a weekend to this timeline, open a bottle of wine, or three, and enjoy going through your old discs.
Once the CDs are ripped and catalogued by iTunes, you can be your own disk jockey and create custom playlists, mixing and matching tunes from your library at will. Your five-disc CD changer will seem a quaint relic.
That's not all. You can now take all that music and play it over your stereo. There are roughly three ways to do this.
If you have a laptop, there is an incredibly simple, cheap solution: Run a cable from the computer to your stereo's receiver. All you need is a mini-to-RCA cable to introduce laptop to stereo receiver. Insert the two RCA plugs into your receiver's aux jack and the mini into your computer's headphone jack. You're done.
This approach, however, is a bit clunky. Wires are involved (not very high tech), and if you are using a laptop in this configuration, it is now yoked to the stereo, dramatically reducing its portability. You can have some freedom of movement by using your iPhone or iPod to control iTunes with Apple's remote application, which is free. Remote puts your entire audio library in the palm of your hand. Songs, albums, artists and playlists are displayed on your handheld's screen, and you can control everything the same way you can from your computer, including volume and track selection.
All of which is great, but what you really want is to use your home's Wi-Fi network to send audio from your computer to your stereo. That will free up the music-playing computer to move around the house, so you can use it for other things while iTunes works in the background to transmit music to your stereo.
If you've ever tried fiddling with Wi-Fi, you know that it typically involves a little voodoo and a lot of luck. Not so with the Apple AirPort Express, a compact Wi-Fi access point that is a snap to use. Simply plug the AirPort Express into an electrical outlet near the stereo, connect it to the stereo's aux jack using a mini-to-RCA cable, follow some easy on-screen prompts and you're set to send your iTunes library from computer to hi-fi.
Take TV beyond the tube
If you're still parked in front of an old tube television set, you have officially run out of excuses for not upgrading to a flat-panel set. Especially since you can now buy a very good liquid crystal display (LCD) set at low prices.
To go high-definition (HD), you'll need to swap out your standard-definition cable box for an HD unit. In many cases, all it costs is time, since most cable or satellite companies will outfit you with an HD set-top box at little or no additional monthly charge. You'll gain astonishingly crisp, vivid video and additional on-demand viewing options.
If you are new to HDTV (high-definition television), you should know about a connector cable called high-definition multimedia interface (HDMI), which transmits high-definition video and audio from the cable box and other sources to the set. The beauty of HDMI is that it transmits both audio and video signals in a single slim cord, eliminating that tangle of video and audio cords.
HDMI is incredibly convenient, not magical or mysterious. So don't let a sales representative convince you to pay $120 (around Rs5,580) for a HDMI connector with 24-karat gold contacts. You can get perfectly good HDMI cables for less than $5.
For an HD set worthy of a den or small bedroom, you can't go wrong with the Samsung LN32C350, a 32-inch set that is $449 on Amazon.com. Its jaw-dropping image quality has made it a best-seller among bargain hunters.
If you want a more panoramic set for the family room, an affordable candidate is the 42-inch Vizio SV422XVT, which is around $949 on Amazon.
Wireless pictures
Everybody has a digital camera these days, and digital photo frames have been a wildly popular gift for the last couple of years. Yet after a few weeks of use, most frames collect more dust than memories. That's because it is tedious to update the memory card that feeds photos to the frame.
And Wi-Fi hasn't helped. Wireless picture frames, which can be remotely refreshed with new photos, have been marketed as a way to share the children's precious moments with far-flung, less-techie relatives (as if grandma had a wireless network). The ugly truth is that Wi-Fi-enabled photo frames are notoriously difficult to set up, connect and keep running.
Give up on the Wi-Fi and go for a frame that lets you send new snapshots via a cellular signal. The $280 Vizit digital photo frame from Isabella Products allows you to remotely dispatch photos to the frame at grandma's house over cellular networks.
The 10.4-inch frame has sharp resolution, and its touch screen provides an easy-to-use interface for controlling the device's somewhat limited settings.
You can load and organize photos on Vizitme.com, which will appear on the Vizit's screen; alternatively, you can send by email new images directly to the frame from your cellphone or computer.
It's easy as pie, but you'll pay a monthly fee of $6 to send a maximum of 100 photos to the frame, which holds 150 photos. Isabella also offers a premium plan that lets you send 1,450 photos a year for $80.
That wasn't so bad, was it?
©2010/THE NEW YORK TIMES
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First Published: Thu, Jun 03 2010. 09 13 PM IST