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YOUR TECH: Building a system in steps

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 3, 2009

If the word "staycation" has entered the lexicon thanks to the challenges of today's economy, I guess there had better be something to make staying home worthwhile.

But those economic factors aren't limited to vacations and travel, of course. Consumers are, it's said, spending less on home electronics. One survey says spending dropped to $1,299, on average, last year. Whether or not that's your experience, it's always prudent to spend the right amount on the tech you need for home.

According to Lee Odess, an expert in the home entertainment business who works with Integrated Media Systems in Sterling, Va., the key is to "define what you want" when drawing up a shopping list. If you have just $1,200 to spend, Mr. Odess says, the first key is to determine what you need, whether it's a new audio system or video.

"It's like the way to eat an elephant: one bite at a time," he says.

On the video side with that amount of money, "You can get a very nice flat-panel television, and it might have a DVD player attached," he says. Then, in the future, you can "move into the audio side."

If you have the TV you want, $1,200 can get you "a basic surround-sound system attached to a TV, or a [higher-end] amplifier and tuner," Mr. Odess says.

Mr. Odess had what may seem a surprising idea for the audio side: Buy an Apple TV device (www.apple.com/appletv/) to connect to your existing flat-panel TV and sound system, or even an iPod docking system that would connect to a portable player. He found the Apple TV a surprising favorite, however.

The Apple TV, which checks in at $229 for a 40-gigabyte model and $329 for 160 GB of storage, "can be an audio manager in terms of creating music playlists," Mr. Odess says. "It's the best piece of technology that I've put in my home. You can display pictures [from a personal computer] and even access YouTube videos, and spending far less than $1,000 gives you that piece of a system.

"It's extremely underrated" among his peers in the home theater business, he says, because they see it as "more of a consumer electronics piece" than as a system component.

Mr. Odess also likes the $149 Vudu device, which, like the Apple TV, will stream programming via an Internet connection and a wireless home network. He says a large library of HD video titles backs the device, which also connects to the Pandora streaming radio service.

I haven't examined the Vudu yet, but I can echo Mr. Odess' endorsement of the Apple TV platform. It's a great product for watching and storing TV programming. The library of available movies and TV shows - with more and more of both in HD than before - is large and constantly growing. The interface is simple to use and, in my own testing, its performance has been superb.

In all your shopping, Mr. Odess counsels, "Do the research; talk to [local] experts in the installation side of the business. Work with people that can give you systems that can be built upon."

Those are all good ideas. Let me add some other suggestions. One is to think carefully about the scan rate of the flat-panel display you plan to buy. The "hot" standard is 1080p, or a 1920x1080 "progressive scan" rate for the video display. That's important for displays bigger than 40 inches, but at 40 inches and less, a 720p scan rate might be difficult to distinguish. If you're looking for a smaller screen size, you can save money with a 720p set, though these are becoming a little more difficult to find.

I also would consider the diminishing number of plasma sets on the market. These often are closeout-priced because makers are moving away from the format.

Also, don't limit yourself to the "big box" stores. Check out smaller chains, including my favorite, Belmont TV, with stores in Laurel, Wheaton and Arlington. I've bought two HD TVs there, and a recent sortie revealed several bargains among the models on display. Your "best buy" might be at a smaller store.

E-mail mkellner@washingtontimes.com