Remember when Microsoft first showed up at a Consumer Electronics Show and poured tens of millions of dollars into "convergence"? We had Windows Vista-powered home automation, media center PCs without satellite support, and so much more. While the above-mentioned products were, well, stinkers, these days it's hard to argue that the consumer electronics industry as a whole is fully converged. Smartphones control AV receivers. Apps and games are standard fare on a flat HDTV. Media servers stream content from the Internet and/or use the cloud as if it has always been there.
Along with PC convergence comes the amazingly low prices that are often associated with computer products versus mainstream, high-end AV gear. Most people can afford a Roku, AppleTV, or Google Chromecast, and today's Costco-sold TVs come loaded with Internet-based features and applications. We are very much connected.
The years 2008 and 2009 were brutal for the custom-installation business. The rise of flat HDTVs in the early 2000s, with pretty solid profit margins to go with them, lured in every alarm installer and low-voltage guy to become a CEDIA-type installer. When the real estate market tanked and took the economy with it in 2008, most of these people left the market as quickly as they had joined. The installers and integrators who remain are the ones who know how to make things work, connect, and communicate. The fact that a system can perform a feat is one thing, but getting it to do so every time, reliably, is a whole other challenge -and something the smart home truly needs. It's a service that simply doesn't go out of style.
These savvy installers find ways to install lighting control and shades that save electricity. They integrate in property irrigation that saves water and provides better results. They locate cameras around the house that are connected to cloud-based DVRs that offer a well-heeled family a piece of mind that is quite valuable...a value that some could argue is recession-proof.
In the early days of my career in audio/video retail sales back in the early 1990s, the Noel Lee (Monster Cable) mantra was to try to sell 10 percent of the system's value in cables. That was a pretty fair concept in that there were tons of different cables and connectors needed, and the better ones really made a nice difference. Today the question is, how much do you budget for IT in your house? I am designing my next house complete with enterprise-class IT from companies like Pakedge, Crestron, and Snap AV. I was shocked to see what percentage of my budget was linked to connectivity and IT. It's easily 25 percent. We are running CAT-6 cable to every location. We are consolidating all of my sources into one small, fan-cooled mechanical room where HD and Ultra HD sources will be run into a Crestron Matrix HDMI router and sent to nearly every room of the house. I've got the cameras going in to the DVR. I've ordered slick landscape control. I will be able to change the temperature of my pool from my iPhone on the way home from work. I will have enterprise-class wireless Internet (like they use in hotels), including the outdoor areas of the house so that people can download, stream, or enjoy whatever they want. Most TVs will be hardwired to the Internet, and each known TV location will be prewired for fiber-optic service so that I don't have to punch up the walls five years from now when the new Internet makes today's Internet look like a joke. Crestron remotes will control the lights, shades, audio, video, HVAC, and much more. Apple iPads will also handle some room controls. The kid's room will have wireless media like Happiest Baby on the Block "white noise" streamed into a Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin.
I know that's a lot of tricks, but it's the design of a modern system, and it costs. Thankfully, it's not prohibitively expensive. I wish I knew six months ago what I know now, as I would have punched open the walls of the condo that I am living in so that I could have Kaleidescape in my bedroom and hardwired Internet to my HDTVs. Drywall patching and paint isn't THAT expensive, even when done by a pro.
Timothy Duffy, Senior Partner at Beverly Hills-based Simply Home Entertainment, says, "We are seeing our IT budgets ranging anywhere from 15 to 30 percent of the cost of the entire AV budget on the larger projects that we do." The question is, where is the sweet spot in today's mainstream home theater system? Here is the breakdown:
• You need the best Internet service that money can buy. Use Speedtest.net or other trusted sources to test the download speed of your local Internet provider. Try the same test on your neighbor's system if he/she has something different. Call providers like Verizon and ask them if FiOS is coming to your area. If you can get 100-Mbps-plus Internet downloads, pay for it...you will never be disappointed. Expect to get gouged on the price of high-speed Internet in the future, thanks to all of the pending mergers, but today's AV system really can't live without it.
• Buy the best routers and switches that you can reasonably afford. Best Buy offers some good stuff, but there are even better products from the likes of Pakedge and Cisco. Apple products are okay but not enterprise-class, and you are likely going to be using your Internet more and more for downloads, streaming, and beyond. You need the hardware to keep up.
• Hardwire as much of your AV system as you can. It works better. It's faster. It's more reliable. It's less taxing on your wireless network. You'll need wireless in your home, but the less you have to use it, the better. I mean, who really gets the 25-Mbps download speed needed via wireless to stream Netflix Ultra HD? Add in your kids watching movies in SD or playing video games, and you run out of bandwidth fast.
• Consider managing the power to your components via IP. This allows you to know via email, text, or carrier pigeon that you have a component down. If you want to restart a product, you can do it from your iPhone or Droid. No fuss. No muss. Power over IP is super cool.
• Don't worry too much about your Internet upload speed, unless you are pumping Blu-ray-quality video to the cloud.
• Embrace the cloud. Use professional-grade backup, such as Background Backup, to cover your media collection. Yes, you might have 1,000 CDs and 250 DVDs in a Case Logic case, but do you really want to rip them again? For a nominal fee, your local drives can be backed up offsite. God forbid you need the backup, but at least you will have it. Upload your German porn and/or Kardashian-like home movies with caution. Otherwise, get in the practice of backing up your media as aggressively as you back up your computer. Hell, they are one and the same in so many ways.
The world of convergence is only going to get better and better as we go forward. We've reached the era of true convergence, but there is still a lot to improve upon. Today audiophiles and home theater buffs alike need to look at having an IT system that is mindful of the world that we live in. We are constantly wired, wireless, connected, integrated, and converging. When it comes time for your next system upgrade, make sure your IT is cutting-edge and enterprise-class.
What IT challenges does your AV system have? What IT upgrades do you plan to make in your system? How fast is your download speed when testing it at home? 10 Mbps? 20? 50? More? Comment below, as we'd love to hear from you.
• Internet Bandwidth Problems and How It Can Screw Up Your Home Theater Experience at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• How Well Does Ultra HD Work on Netflix? at HomeTheaterReview.com.